28 June 2007

Perspectives and puzzles

In Solveig Torvik's docudramatic novel, Nikolai's Fortune (reviewed here), one of the characters is a peddlar who makes regular 800-mile round trips from rural Finland to coastal Norway in winter, carrying the merchandise that he sells along the way to keep body and soul together. 

Torvik's vivid character helps me remember that there are worse fates in life than being caught in the sprawling nightmare known as Heathrow Airport. Nevertheless, after being prodded through cattle drives both eastbound and westbound, finding myself and my dear spouse standing in line nearly an hour for a shared taxi to get from the center of the airport to its perimeter because the shuttle buses stopped ten minutes before we reached them (ten minutes we'd spent on the runway waiting for an open gate), learning that our travel companions missed a flight to Moscow because family members were separated by capricious security enforcement, and gaining the general impression that the role of an international traveler is to negotiate elaborate labyrinths whose twists and turns are revealed only by throwing money at them ... I find that perspective is sometimes hard to maintain. I'm an experienced and fairly unflappable traveler, but experiences that used to be exceptionally unpleasant are becoming the norm.

To be fair, some points of last week's labyrinth turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant. To be specific, Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. I actually enjoyed the security station: no taking off shoes, no removing laptops from luggage, just put your stuff on the belt and walk into an ultramodern glass and steel cabinet for an electronic full-body screening. On the other side of the screening, I looked back at the young men staffing the station. One of them was idly playing with the display showing the full-body image of the most recent scanned passenger--recognizably a human body, but not detailed enough to be embarrassing. Apparently to amuse himself, the security man was twirling the body around on its vertical axis. I told the young men that I vastly preferred their procedure to ours. One of them laughed and said, "Yes, but your guys get paid better." I had no answer for that.

One of my other favorite stories from this visit to Moscow and Elektrostal also had to do with transportation. As we were preparing to board one of the electric trains serving the Moscow region, our local friend told us about the changes made recently at the station serving his home community. Those who boarded in Moscow had to buy tickets to get to the platform, but many people who boarded at intermediate stops never bothered to buy tickets. If they noticed ticket inspectors during their trips, they would get off at the next stop and reboard the same train on a wagon that the inspectors had already checked. Finally, the railroad company had installed a fence at his station, so that disembarking passengers would have to pass through the station and, if they had no tickets, they would have to obtain them to pass through the exit turnstyles. At first, there were gaps in the fences, he recounted, and the people simply passed through the gaps.

But one day the gaps were closed and, as the train squealed to a halt, a loudspeaker announced that all passengers must buy a ticket on their way out of the station. But, as our friend said, "Russian people always find a way"--and in the case of this station, they simply hopped off the platform and onto the tracks and walked past the end of the fence and into the city.

As we waited for the train, his wife looked at us and asked her husband whether they shouldn't at least this once buy tickets. He replied, "No, our friends are learning about Russia, and they must see that this eternal struggle against authority is what unites Russians." Sure enough, at their station, the loudspeaker asked the "respected passengers" to buy their tickets and exit through the station, and nearly all the passengers--men and women, boys and girls, suits and sweatpants--jumped off the platform, right in front of the train, and made an end run around the fence. We were impressed that about ten percent of the passengers headed for the station, and even more impressed when some of them paused halfway there to climb the eight-foot fence, including a girl in flip-flops.

We watched all this. We also looked at the considerable jump it took to get from platform to tracks, and decided to obey the loudspeaker. By that time we were the last passengers to reach the station. We stepped into the station and saw the row of gleaming turnstyles. But where were the ticket sellers? The only ones we saw were on the other side of the turnstiles, selling tickets to outgoing passengers. We saw no place to buy exit tickets. We went back outside, and finally noticed a ticket sales window, obscured by a wooden divider, on the track side of the station. With relief, we headed for that window, but nobody was there. It was only then that we noticed an elderly woman, pointing at a place in a large wrought-iron gate where one bar had been removed--just enough of a gap for an adult to step through. Beckoning us to follow, she bent over and stepped through to freedom.
Moscow, Manezh SquareMoscow, Sparrow Hills; YCEWPatrick Neifert and Judy M.Noginsk

On the day of remembrance of June 22, 1941--the opening day of Hitler's invasion of the USSR--we were in Moscow. Huge numbers of bouquets had been brought to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin. With all my supposed immunity toward displays of military theatrics, I found the changing of the guard unusually poignant that day--not so much the spectacle itself, perhaps, as the throngs watching.

Given the USSR's losses in World War II, estimated at 26 million, it is not hard to understand the deep well of emotions that so many Russians have for that war. During my first trip to the USSR, in 1975, I remember at least two different occasions in restaurants were I fell into conversation with middle-aged Russians. After a certain amount of drinking, in each of these separate cases, the men began reminiscing about the war and about the heroic soldiers who fell in the struggle against the fascists. It was as if alcohol and a young American tourist were catalytic social ingredients, requiring impromptu history lessons ending in tears. I think on both occasions the men had the impression that Americans had no idea how central Russia's role was in the defeat of Hitler.

They were probably right. But judging by some contemporary clues, many Russians also do not know or do not understand those increasingly distant events. Sean Guillory addresses this puzzle in a recent blog post, "Forgetting June 22, 1941." Of all the places in the world, Russia would seem to be among the least likely to host neo-Nazis and the like, which was why I was so shocked a few years ago when I first saw neo-Nazi graffiti painted on a Fryazevo wall, "Hitler was right." What accounts for this trespass on a nation's sacred memories? Does the sheer outrageousness have an addictive quality for disaffected young people? Is the lowering of barriers to fascist fascinations an unintended consequence of Russia's unwillingness to confront and exorcise its domestic record of tyranny and cruelty?

I'm sure about one thing: we can grieve the death of memory, but we cannot comment from outside Russia with any sense of superiority. On one terrible day, September 11, 2001, the USA lost 3000 people. A spirit of outrage and vindictiveness, mixed with the crassest forms of political opportunism, arose and is wreaking havoc with lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is trashing the good name of the USA worldwide. What would we have done in the face of an onslaught on the scale of Operation Barbarossa? The comparison is nonsense, of course; part of what has shaped the United States is precisely our relative safety, sheltered by two oceans. Both Americans and Russians have, at times, concluded that the best way to stay safe is to beat the drums of a tribal-level mobilization against the Enemy--the very path that Hitler would seem to have discredited for all time.

(We photographed the graffiti above on a wall near downtown Elektrostal, across the street from School No. 13.)

Friday PS: Why would I expect to find news on CNN? This morning I turned on my motel television only to find that a story about a potential car bomb had displaced even Paris Hilton on the Cable NEWS Network. Congratulations, that is news--but so is the rest of the world, including the deaths of more soldiers, Russian government comments on U.S. assessments of Russian democracy, and on and on. Instead, I was treated to interview after interview with people who had different ways of saying that they really didn't know anything. Oh, and that last standby of TV news-as-entertainment: reporters interviewing each other!

Thanks to my colleague John P. Brown for this timely teaching, dating from 70 years ago:
. . . But meanwhile the American state is developing and increasing its powers and the church must gradually recognise that it is something more than a community at prayer. The church is the body of Christ; and Christ is the revelation of the living God, the creator, judge and redeemer of all nations. Such a fellowship can never be completely at home in any nation or perfectly conform to national purposes and ambitions. The conflict between Christianity and the state will become particularly apparent in times of war; but it will not be perfectly understood if it is not anticipated in other than martial periods. In every community, whether ostensibly Christian or not, there is an innate and inherent tendency toward self-glorification. Nowhere is the temptation to idolatry greater than in national life. The nation is so much larger than the individual that it not only naturally claims to be the individual’s god but naturally impresses the individual with the legitimacy of this claim. 
The national idolatry has become a particularly virulent form of sin in the contemporary period. There is no place in the world to-day [sic] in which the church must not contend against it. In some nations the issue is definitely joined. In them the word of God is actually spoken with greater clarity than where the issue is not joined. In America, for instance, there are still many prophets of God who imagine that Christianity and the religion of “the American Dream” are one and the same thing. These prophets imagine that “democracy is the social and political expression of Christianity,” and that a nation which has abolished kings has also overcome the pride of nations. . . The kings of modern communities are most frequently financial and industrial oligarchs . . . They have the same motley crew of prophets in their court which Ahab boasted (I Kings 22:2-28), servile priests of religion who wail about an imperiled “law and order.”
(Reinhold Niebuhr, from a sermon, “Four Hundred to One,” in Beyond Tragedy, 1937.)

Goodbye, Pounce
On CNN, Paris Hilton's public relations makeover takes priority even over the deaths of dozens of Iraqis. Perspective is hard to find. Within our own family, there's a new grief on a different scale--impossible to compare to those rivers of human blood, but in its own dimension marking a huge passage for us: the death of our long-time companion, Pounce.

Our dignified old cat, whose head was distorted by a tumor, hung on through our Russia trip and greeted us weakly but affectionately when we got home. But he wasn't able to last through my present trip to Atlanta; I found out yesterday that my family had to make that long-anticipated final trip to the veterinary hospital after Pounce stopped drinking water. He's now buried near our front steps, the place where he waited to greet us so many times.

At age sixteen, Pounce was with us for well over half of our family's history. He survived two dogs, Muncie and Moose, and our foster-cat Sebastian. Wherever we lived, he brought us closer to our neighbors, from whom he freeloaded shamelessly. I can't bring myself to write about the graces he brought into our family life; the sudden absence of all that is too fresh for me to put words to it here.

Blues in Russia--a Youtube sample.

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