29 December 2011

How to write about Russia

Winter's progress,
on mobile phone

Mir Street, this morning, 9:30

City Hall, a week ago, 9:14 a.m.

View from Room 8, 9:34 a.m.

Institute front yard earlier this week

Watching Sakharov Prospect in
comfort, thanks to tvrain.ru
Is it ever possible to make useful generalizations about a place?

Two essayists got me thinking about this question today. The first essayist (brought to my attention by Eden Grace at the Friends United Meeting office in Kisumu, Kenya) is Binyavanga Wainaina. The essay: "How to Write about Africa." The essay's genesis and aftermath are described here: "How to Write about Africa II: The Revenge." As I read the cliches and images, and cringed at times, I remembered David Niyonzima telling Northwest Yearly Meeting that the continent of Africa is "the opposite of dark." (This post.)

Binyavanga Wainaina's jeremiad reminded me that it's hard--maybe impossible--to keep personal biases and motivations out of our writings about people and places. Among our primary motivations may be to enhance our own profiles as wise and sympathetic observers, free of prejudice, neither too naive nor too cynical, far superior to ordinary tourists or jaded reporters. Our extraordinary insights will bring grateful tears to the eyes of locals who had otherwise given up all hope that someone from outside could understand their trials.

The second essayist is David Remnick, whose book Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire was the first book I read on the dissolution of the Soviet Union--an event whose twentieth anniversary has just passed here without celebration. The essay: "The Civil Archipelago: How Far Can Resistance to Vladimir Putin Go?"

I honestly believe that Remnick probably doesn't worry overmuch, and does not need to worry, about his personal profile as an observer. But I do think that all of Binyavanga Wainaina's resistance to cliche and stereotype in African reporting applies equally to Russia--and should be taken to heart by those of us who produce and consume this verbiage. I'll never forget my furious reaction to a sectional tag inside an otherwise important Atlantic Monthly article: "Zaire with permafrost."

Neither Russia's nor Zaire's importance is based primarily on how they fit into some ideological or imperial scheme of global relevance. They are simply places on this planet where people whom God loves try to find food, safety, love, and meaning. We can either forget this crucial truth in our pursuit of cleverness, or we can instead try to use our creativity to build relationships that express our common creatureliness.

Remnick's article is a thoughtful and non-sensational look at possible shifts in the nation's center of psychic gravity, as evidence mounts that old habits of resignation and deference to the "power vertical" may be changing. As every competent reporter does, he talks with specific people, both inside and outside the corridors of power, and presents them as, in some ways, representative of the trends he's covering. The constant dilemma for both writer and reader is, of course, how representative are those people, really? Do their moods and motivations actually reflect the country as a whole, or some segment to whom the reporters' (and readers') biases have drawn them?

The story of Russia's fragmented civic culture is rapidly changing--the crystallization image at the end of the article is apt. (When Remnick wrote his article, Vladislav Surkov still occupied his long-time post as deputy head of the presidential staff; now he's been allegedly demoted to a deputy prime-minister's post. But the insights that focused on him are still valid.) I appreciated Remnick's deftly drawn sketches of several actors in this changing scene--Evgeniya Chirikova, Liudmila Alekseyeva, "Sasha and Masha," and Olga Romanova. But here's my worry: do we like those people because they're truly representative of Russia, or because they represent our search for heroes who are like us? Are these courageous people Russia's future, or are we living our fantasy Russian future through these vicarious heroes--without our having to pay the heavy price that the next wrenching political transformation of Russia might cost? OK, here's a thought experiment: are insiders like Surkov and Aleksei Kudrin perhaps the real heroes? They have put themselves right in the center of the enormous grinding wheels that represent the nearly irreconcilable forces attempting to dominate Russia--nationalism, corruption, lust for power, demographic challenges, and the innate, patient decency of Russians (stereotype but true as well!), whose legendary tolerance of abuse does, however, have a potentially explosive limit. I'm not asserting this thesis myself!--my sympathies are with any "hero" who actually gives my own students real hope--but I want to keep us honest as we examine the choices our commentators make.

About four years ago, we took the electric train from Elektrostal's downtown station to Noginsk's downtown station, a journey of about 20 minutes. Elektrostal's station has no turnstiles, so it is possible to get on the train without a ticket. But Noginsk's station does have turnstiles, so you need a ticket to exit. OR you get off the train, jump down onto the tracks, and walk down the tracks about twenty meters, to where the station's perimeter ends, and clamber back into town. The vast majority of the passengers chose that path to free transportation. As one of our friends says, "The government's job is to build fences. Our job is to find the holes."

We see the same phenomenon every Sunday on our way from Moscow to Fryazevo--from one turnstile-equipped station to another. This is a much longer journey, so chances are good that, however they've boarded, passengers will encounter controllers. These are conductors whose job it is to check people's tickets. People who have boarded the train by finding the holes rather than using turnstiles still need to cope with these controllers. Here's how many do it: Everyone knows that the controllers are coming--people begin coming in from the next car in back, heading forward to evade the check. As our fellow passengers see this parade, they leave cigarette packages, newspapers, decks of cards, whatever, to reserve their seats, and join the procession. Sometimes they do this when the controllers have already entered the car. Last Sunday I saw a passenger get up when the controller had actually reached our seats. The passenger deliberately left a tissue on his seat, sidled past the controller, and walked forward out of the car. Badge-wearing guards took up posts at both ends of the car, but not before everyone who wanted to leave was able to do so. Apparently the tacit rule is: the very moment your rear end has gained any altitude above seat level, your ticket is not checked.

As soon as the train reaches the next station, these "jackrabbits," the passengers who have moved ahead of the controllers, exit as fast as they can and run back along the platform to reboard the train at a point behind the car reached by the controllers. This happens in full view of everyone still on the train, including the controllers. The train only stops for thirty seconds, so speed is of the essence. As the controllers move forward, people reclaim the seats they'd abandoned to evade the controllers. At the end of the journey, they must still find a way to get off railroad property without going through turnstiles. At Fryazevo, the microbus drivers will obligingly leave off and pick up passengers at a convenient point just past the station fence, even though it's not a formal bus stop.

I smile as I describe this familiar scene, but it does point to a contradiction that faces all who dream of a more engaged relationship between the average citizen and his or her government. In some ways, the present arrangement ("the government's job is to build fences--our job is to find the holes") reflects an ancient equilibrium. It's an equilibrium that might drive a Western idealist nuts (although I'd argue we have our equivalents!), and we might even argue that it reinforces a fatal self-enslavement that could keep civic reform movements in a permanently marginal status. But up to this point it seems to be working for the powerful and powerless alike.

It's not wrong for idealists, including outsiders, to imagine something different. But let's understand whose future is at stake and whether our fantasies are ultimately rooted in our own intellectual fascinations, in the calculations of empire, or in love.

How to write about Russia, part two, part three

Some sociological observations of the recent large meetings in Moscow: "Small deeds, no politics."

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: "The Church is called to be authentically and totally pro-life."

Frederick Buechner is probably the first novelist I really paid attention to after I became a Christian. So it was interesting to see this recent item on the Internet Monk site. (Also see the comments.)

Has your church or meeting adopted a minute relating to the Occupy movement?

Don Miller, "What Happens When You Stop Running?" And what might happen if you don't??

Bankruptcy courts "trying out online chats." I'm not making this up.

Angela Strehli and Marcia Ball--more from this fun collaboration:

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