Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Things to read if you can't figure out what the hell is going on in Russia

If you are like me and are trying to figure out what the hell is going on in Russia right now, here are a couple of links from around the web that might make things a bit clearer:

The Fall 2011 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR and is wonderful. In the opening letter from the editors, Ted Genoways and Dimiter Kenarov aptly remark that if there is a mood that hangs over all the essays in this issue, it's the specter of [that] disenchantment. Order the whole issue or read excerpts online for fantastically atmospheric essays by Dimiter Kenarov, Maria Vassileva, Nadia Shira Cohen, Jason Motlagh and excellent, just superb photography. The photograph below is Maisie Crow's. This little dude is playing with an old Soviet era gas-mask.

I have also been enchanted by Katharine Holt's blog. Katharine is currently living in Russia and doing dissertation research in Russian literature. She started posting in order to be able to share things she considers delightfully absurd or in some broad sense hip but, as you can imagine, her travelogue has partially morphed into a visual diary of political unrest. I love the immediacy of her updates! Her dispatches are a terrific companion to whatever other more straight-forward reporting you happen to be reading. 

Katharine is the sister of author Elliott Holt who, in a recent Twitter exchange, told me that half of her just-finished novel is set in Moscow. As you can see, we've got ourselves a Holt Family fan-girl and she is keeping her fingers crossed.

Last but not least, just this past December David Greene, NPR's Moscow correspondent rode the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok and posted stories about the people he met and the Russia he saw on this VERY long trip. Greene is funny and really charming. You can read the complete series HERE

Hope this helps. 


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  1. What's going on in Russia? Even the wisest cannot tell... There is this russian verse "Umom Rossiu ne ponyat" which is roughly translated as:

    The mind cannot understand Russia
    No common measure can grasp it
    It has a particular status
    In Russia one can only believe.

    It's all about irrationality and universal chaos. It is the root of romanticism. You can't expect the feelings to tell you the future, nor the right behaviour even in terms of simple survival. The people of Russia now want something brand new and enchanting (again) but the problem is that they dont know exactly what it is and how it looks. They will understand it, this object of their secret desire, when they are beaten and starved to death (that's what makes them "bratushki" (brothers) with bulgarians, by the way). Which actually is the only possible way for a country that has never been free in its entire history and has jumped directly from feudalism to communism and subsequently (nowadays) to oligarchism. And of course the "greatness" of Russia, my favourite concept. No ordinary western thinker or hedonist can understand what is so great about humans that live on the edge of poverty and slavery. But human rights and freedom be damned if only a little bit of that greatness can illuminate the sky again. This is one of the main russian's motto. Go explain this to americans... I can only imagine the eyes wide open.

  2. Go explain it to a contemporary Bulgarian. I can't understand it, I don't really want to. And I don't understand why we are considered "bratushki", I think we're much more similar to the other Balkan nations than to the Russians. To me, Russians are irrational, and well, I don't get them. It's not that I don't like them, I just don't relate to them.

  3. I think you underestimate how knowable Russia is to Americans. Russians and Americans do, in fact, view themselves quite similarly. As EXCEPTIONAL.

  4. Russia is super unknowable to Americans. Yes, they've certainly heard something on the news about their Cold War main antagonist the same way some of them has read about ancient Egypt. But the true nature of this knowledge is largely revealed in the pop-culture - movies, for example. We've all seen how Russians are depicted as plain clones of Americans. The characters, their behavior and speech, the perfect order of thoughts and actions, the ultimate rationality, just follow some well-known american pattern (including the classic western mentality plus a dose of heroism). In contrast, Russians from their own movies look like simple folks who often behave like idiots, have this unique bittersweet humor and sometimes possess extraordinary wisdom. Completely different world.
    Of course, there is something great and exceptional about Russia - its madness. Despite this trait though, Russians were not able to outshine the achievements of other great congregations - like the pyramids of Giza. Well, there was some noteworthy exceptions - like the draining of a whole sea for the purpose of irrigation and the deportations of entire nationalities to Syberia.