Most people I’ve met claim they were drawn into studying Russian by the country’s prolific literary culture (some, let’s be honest, because of the country’s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women). While I think of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as a masterpiece, the tomes of Tolstoy and piles of works by Fedor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Leonid Andreev, Isaac Babel, and many more that graced my desk were never enough on their own to draw me in. Fascinating studies of a foreign culture certainly, but hardly sufficient to stop me in my tracks.
For me, the real wealth of Russian arts, their truly inimitable cultural contribution to the world, was its classical music. It was the music that drew me in, wanting to better understand the history and culture that had produced such a deep and varied art. Among the modernists, I marveled at Aleksandr Skryabin, influenced by the atonal works of Schoenberg and the tonal language with which Chopin experimented, he composed synesthetic Black and White Masses. Despite his experimentation, he retained the undeniable air of thorough classical education and technique so apparent in certain Russian composers, most detectable in the dark, complex pieces composed for the left hand written after he severely inured his right overpracticing Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey and was told he’d never play again.
Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major formative event for the modern Russian outlook. At the same time as Russians experienced economic collapse, loss of power and influence, and reduced quality of life, the population also witnessed the international commodification of its natural resources, its consumer market and real estate, and even its brides. Since Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russia has demonstrated an intense rise in nationalism at home and aggressive actions on its borders as the population vies to reassert control over its prospects. The source of Russian power lies in its autocratic leadership, cultural resurgence, and resource wealth, which Putin is aggressively reorienting toward new economic and geographic frontiers. While the current Ukrainian conflict is largely political and, thus, more difficult to predict, the real battleground in this era of globalization will be the energy market, and this fight lies to the East.
Moscow, Novodevichy Cemetery
Rex always smelled of the fire. That acrid scent of burning cedar and daily BBQ mingled with a sour whiff of whatever cheap whiskey they had around. It clung to his heavy works shirt in the summer, and I gradually became so accustomed to it that I could sense that hint of smoke at first sight.
Somehow I can’t recall ever seeing him by a fire even once, though surely I must have. Nor can call up the details of his features; more than a decade later, only the silhouette of his huge frame and the ten-gallon hats he favored pulled down low over his fleshy face linger in my mind’s eye. That ungainly form, so heavily tied to this earth, was unforgettable. On so many occasions, I recall that bulky shape filling his rickety porch, leaning forward with a good-natured leer as C and I approached, watching her eyes glance over the rusty bike leaning against the weathered steps. “Hey,” he wheezed. “Wanna ride my Huffy? Heh.” As if to demonstrate that his lechery was all in good fun, he would heave his awkward frame skyward and shuffle into the old house for another beer, always safely assuming we would follow.
Parable with a Skull by Jaroslav Rona (Prague, 1993)
On January 17, 1989, during demonstrations in Prague marking the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal wrote: “Maybe the old gods have died, but new gods are born, who have to pay the price.” Revolution is a Promethean burden, a tax levied in blood and land. If paid in full, a revolution can be successful, even heroic. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe progressed relatively smoothly with the help of land redistribution programs following the collapse of communism and the genocide of the region’s largest ethnic minority population under Hitler.
The American Civil War, however, was the opposite. The Civil War was fought for a number of complex reasons, though slavery remained the banner issue, yet the slaves themselves were largely excluded. The Civil War effectively killed off the landed white lower class, replacing it with a non-land-owning emancipated slave population, in which only the men eventually received three-fifths of the vote, while women everywhere were still unable to vote, leaving the country’s government in the hands of a minority, primarily white male population.
In essence, the 1989 revolutions provided a comparatively ethnically and economically homogeneous population with land ownership and political rights through a seemingly simple, bloodless process. Conversely, in America, the North won the blood-soaked Civil War and effectively ended slavery as a legal institution, yet ultimately lost the revolution by failing to enact a policy of inclusion, instead entrenching slavery in the country’s cultural make-up. The effect of these revolutions, their successes, and their failures, can still be seen to resonate in the modern struggles of the United States and European Union today, while the region’s differing histories have proven predictive of the differing ethnic and economic tensions that have developed in the decades and centuries since.