21 July 2022

"The beautiful Russia of the future," part two

Screenshot; source.  

If you watched today's hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives January 6 committee, you might be wondering why I'm not covering "the USA of the future" instead of returning to the theme of Russia's future. Fair enough. The comments that follow on Russia are a mixture of hope and apprehension, and I can honestly say that I have the same mixture of feelings about the USA. Both countries might be caught in extremely vulnerable historical moments. 

Historian and literary critic Dmitri Bykov says, "Russia is doomed to change. If she doesn't become different, she will no longer exist." Can we say with assurance that the USA can keep on the same fractious course we are now following and continue to exist?

My first post on this theme stressed the importance of keeping the vision of a "beautiful" and "free" Russia alive and circulating in the context of the war in Ukraine, the associated information war, and the cynicism that naturally arises when truth disappears from the public arena.

Truth is not served by spreading beautiful sentiments without also acknowledging the factors weighing us down. Here are a couple of examples of these mixed hopes and realities.

Independent network Dozhd' returns to the "air"; Tikhon Dzyadko opens inaugural YouTube telecast this past Monday. Screenshot; source.

On March 3, I described Russia's television channel Dozhd's last moments on air from Moscow. This past Monday I learned that the mostly exiled journalists associated with Dozhd' ("Rain," the "optimistic channel") were now relaunching their service as a YouTube channel, with a gradually expanding range of programs anchored by the signature daily news show "Here and Now," from facilities in Riga, Amsterdam, Paris, and Tbilisi.

I didn't catch the live stream that day, but replayed the stream that evening. One of the most moving parts of that initial program was its footage from Bucha, Ukraine. This documentary segment reviews the horrors of the Russian occupation, and the fresh evidences of killings and tortures found when the Russians left. We come to know the rector of the local Ukrainian Orthodox church, Andrei Galavin, who has become a sort of tour guide for visitors to Bucha. This town has become an obligatory stopping place for politicians and celebrities visiting from abroad—including, as we see, Bono.

Father Galavin on Russians. Screenshot; source.
The interviewer speaks to Father Galavin in Russian, but Galavin replies exclusively in Ukrainian. When he's asked about his relationships with Russian people, he is sad but unequivocal: now he avoids them. "Do whatever you want at home," he tells his Russian audience through the interviewer, "as long as here we don't see or hear you."

This response came back to me when I watched a new episode of the interview show "To Be Continued: People," also on YouTube. This time the hosts interviewed Dmitri Bykov, whom I first wrote about back in January 2016, and whose attempted assassination I mentioned here.

(Ironically, the theme of that first post was "Why are you still here?" That is, why are you still in Russia, in these apparently risky times? Now Bykov himself is at Cornell University, but as he says, he still assumes he'll be back in Russia when his contract ends. He also leaves himself an out: nowadays, he says, what does emigration really mean when you can live in one place, work in another, and move about more or less freely?)

Dmitri Bykov in Ithaca, New York, interviewed on the YouTube
channel "To Be Continued." Screenshot; source.

Galavin's words of alienation about Russians came to my mind when Bykov said, referring to the changes wrought by the current war, "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

But there's more. 

I have another feeling that's even worse: it's the sense that nothing else was possible. Russia is developing in the only possible way, a way prescribed in advance. Vladimir Putin was not being deceitful when he said that Russia made its only possible move. Russia had only one way of preserving the form it has become, that is, preserving the Putin regime with its vertical structure, its unitary government, and so on—and that was to start a war. There was no other way; otherwise she would have to change ... and people would rather die than change.

... The vast majority of Russians, I think ninety percent as they appear now with their views and habits can exist one way or another only under the conditions of Putin's power. If the country starts to change, they would have to adapt. They are ready to die rather than begin to somehow evolve. Therefore, this sense that “this country is terrible, but it's the only place we can exist”—it is a fair statement."

Gloomy so far, but it's more complicated than that. Bykov actually gives Putin's regime only a few months to live; he says that it is unsustainable in the same way that someone who lights the world on fire for the sake of temporary warmth (for example, when threatened by the "cold winds of freedom") actually chooses self-destruction. As for the post-Putin Russia, he acknowledges that many predict a North Korean-style isolation that could last for years, but he feels that Russia cannot ever become isolated from the rest of the word. For one thing, its size makes it too porous, too much in contact with its many neighbors. For another, a country that can claim Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can never be permanently overcome by stupidity. Any attempt to freeze and isolate Russia will be wrecked by pressures both internal and external.

This site in Paris was one of the centers of Russia's
spiritual intelligentsia in exile during the Communist years.
On the subject of Russia's porous borders: resources for a sustainable vision of "the beautiful Russia of the future" in the face of today's crudity and cruelty include that part of Russia now living elsewhere. Bykov reframed the concept of emigration for today, and for his own situation, but the experience of a faithful remnant in exile is an ancient story, even a Biblical one.

In Russia's case, emigre communities in many countries (while never an orderly bunch by any means) helped preserve Russia's cultural and spiritual heritage in the years of official atheism at home. Today I have no doubt that today's journalists and artists in exile will bless the world as well as their homeland in ways too complex for us to trace at the moment. But as they do so, they will also have to face the costs imposed by history on all those who speak the same beautiful language that Putin and the departed occupiers of Bucha speak. They may never convince Father Galavin.

Ani Kokobobo on GlobalVoices: "It is completely natural for Ukrainians to have a certain attitude toward Russian culture in this moment." But ... 

Mary Raber translates a moving meditation on father-son relations torn by the war in Ukraine, including the intuition that the father actually knows more than he can face. (Here's the original article in Russian.)

Another theme entirely ... the Washington Post profiles the amazing blues guitarist and singer Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. I remember first marveling at Kingfish in his teens; he's just gone from strength to strength.

Nancy Thomas, from her "Old Growth Forest" vantage point, on the good death.

Kingfish! "Empty Promises." (Here's Michael Palmisano's enjoyable commentary on this performance.)


Bill Samuel said...

Re your musical selection, The Washington Post Magazine has a long article on Kingfish today.

Bill Samuel said...

By the way, the title in the print version is "The Thrill Is Back."