I missed some geopolitical changes (oops), but I sure can tell you about Mother Russia’s soul.
I was chatting with a friend when she announced that she was thinking of taking a trip to Poland.
"Is that so?" I said politely, thinking dreamily of Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Szymborska, St. Maximilian Kolbe. "Now, is Poland still part of Russia?"
"Part of … Russia?" she inquired.
"Yeah, you know. The U.S.S.R."
I could tell by the look on her face that I’d committed yet another mortifying gaffe. I’m used to such looks, having stopped watching TV sometime around the time "Mr. Ed" concluded its run.
I’m used to having conversations that start with a friend saying, for example, “How about that Bob McDonnell?” “Now is he a country western singer?” I’ll grope. “No, hold on, he plays basketball?” “Heather, he’s the former governor of Virginia. He was just involved in a huge federal corruption trial. He and his wife … oh, forget it.”
Anyway, imagine my surprise to consult Wikipedia and find that "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Russia for short, was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991."
Hey, in 1991 I’d just moved to L.A. and was looking for a job, okay? I was busy that year. I knew something had been going on over there since Sputnik: Glasnost, Chernobyl, Gorbachev, and now… Putin, is that his name?
But no, seriously, I try to stay abreast. The problem is my brain tends to skip over everything that isn’t a non-political human interest story: bizarre crimes, medical mishaps, backwoods blues singers, obscure film-makers, obsessives, recluses, religious fanatics, martyrs, obituaries. I’m always dutifully trying to memorize who’s on what side in which war, but no sooner do I get things straight than the battle lines shift again. Even now, when I hear “Rwanda,” I have to pause and call to mind the mnemonic device of “Hutu/hate” to remember which side was which.
The fact is, I feel very close to Russia. Back in the day, I drank a ton of Popov vodka. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s "Stalker." I can tell you where I was when I read War and Peace (on the island of Syros, Greece, wasted on retsina). I’ve practically memorized the opening lines from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I’ve pored over Chekhov’s stories, plays and, especially, letters.
And I may not be totally clear on what’s going on now in the Ukraine and whatnot, but I totally know Russia was in big, big trouble before. Recently, in fact, I read a slew of amazing books by people who’d been in the prison camps: The Arctic Death Camps by Robert Conquest, Richard Würmbrand’s Christ in the Communist Prisons, The Accused by Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, and perhaps my favorite: The Woman Who Could Not Die by Julia de Beausobre.
Upon learning that her husband Nicolay, imprisoned in another camp, had been shot, Beausobre wrote:
And while I may not be able to quote you chapter and verse of Russia’s political history, I know their long history of solitary pilgrimage: St. Serafim, who lived in a hut in the snow; the anonymous wandering monk who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim; Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I know their long history of loving and seeking Christ. I know that they have suffered, unbelievably.
I know (because I’m reading French philosopher René Girard’s
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