“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, June 05, 2005


While it is illegal to experiment on a living human being, there are no laws against experimenting on nations. Poor Russia has suffered two great experiments – one, the Bolshevism of communism, and the other, after Gorbachev, the Bolshevism of capitalism. The latter, of course, is much favored in the Western press, which has gotten more worked up about the jailing of a billionaire Mafioso/oil tycoon than all the premature deaths in Moscow and Chechnya combined.

A reader wisely scored LI for suggesting that Central Europe would do better to create an EU-style union with Russia than with the EU. This is not going to happen – not only are the hostilities still too deep, but Russia has drifted back into its own history of disastrous strong men with Putin. There is a nice personal essay – St. Petersburg Portraits -- by Emma Lieber in this season’s Massachussetts Review. Portraits of St. Petersburg are a motif in Russian literature – Gogol’s Nevsky Prospect, for instance, which begins with the Prospect itself as a sort of generator of drama, out of which its characters -- its artist and the young prostitute -- arise as geographic coordinates of what becomes a typical Gogolian delirium. Lieber visited St. Petersburg as a student for a year – and her voice has that comfort with… no, more, that quiet relish in the slightly bizarre and backwards and louche that one picks up from all the American expat lit that has come out of stays in Eastern Europe (Arthur Phillips’ Prague is a good example). Americans have a special status there, since the scramble for existence in the capitalist system is being done by people who have learned it by the book -- learned it, that is, by inference from those books that demonized it. It is as if a culture had adopted Christianity as they had inferred it from the works of Alistair Crowley. Lieber has the preternatural actuarial wisdom that comes from having absorbed the statistics, which I guess is part of growing up and getting into a good college now. So she is grimly aware, for instance, of the statistics concerning life expectancy. For males in Russia, the emptying out of the male slot after forty has an alarming visibility:

“Vysula was my host father for five months of my stay in St. Petersburg. He is around 50 years old, and he expects to live another five years or so, ten years tops. Of his class of twelve boys at school, ten are already dead, from sickness or alcoholism or Communism, or some combination of these.”

“At any rate Vysula remains, alive and sober, one of the last of his childhood friends to have reached middle age, though while I was there he was always sick in some way. He usually had a cold or the flu and would wander from room to room with a scarf around his neck, quizzing me constantly about American medicines and offering absurd advice about how to stay healthy
(which always reminded me of the Woody Allen character in Sleeper, a '70s health-food nut who has been cryogenically frozen for several centuries and thaws out to find that cigarettes, deepfried
fat, and chocolate had been the healthy stuff all along). In general Vysula looked well-fed and sturdy, and I never could quite believe that he was sick. But if we're to judge by the statistics,
he probably will die in the next five or ten years.”

We’ve been told, again and again, that the free market shocks of the nineties were making all the difference for the Russians – and at the same time we’ve been told, again and again, that Russia is held together by criminal activity. Lieber is, of course, giving only her impressions, but it doesn’t seem too far fetched to think that an atmosphere so constituted by a monstrous past at the heel and the inability to shake off whole geological strata of expectations in order to free oneself to act must bear down upon people. On the advise of friends from Massachusetts, Lieber gets in touch with a Solugub scholar, Elizabeva, and meets her daughter and mother – no men in the household, another exemplar of the statistical norm:

It is perfectly typical in St. Petersburg for three generations to share their living space, because apartments are hard to come by and Russians don't tend to move out (although luckily the country is past the point where ex-spouses must live together for decades, as they did until rather recently). It is also fairly typical that these three generations should be made up entirely of women, since Russian men tend to die. Elisaveta's family, she
once told me smilingly, can't hold on to its men—first her father died, then her husband, then her brother. When her dog gave birth last year the male puppies died right away, but the females were healthy and strong.”

There is this amusing riff about Elisaveta’s mother:

“She lives with her two college-aged daughters, Valentina and Maria, and her mother, a
true Russian babushka (literally, grandmother), who is huge, takes a shot of vodka before every meal, dresses in a housedress and slippers, and paddles around making outraged remarks in a raspy, slurred voice to no one in particular. Elizavetas mother never leaves the house. I assumed that the reason was her much discussed bad heart, but Elizaveta explained matter-of-factly that "Mama hasn't wanted to go out since 1943," when, as a young woman during the siege, she was chased through the streets of Leningrad by cannibals.”

History is a matter of more trick or treat than we like to think. And once you start getting the tricks, it is hard to stop.


winna said...

A pointless link about St Petersburg.

You might find it amusing.


'Maps and official statistics give St Petersburg the appearance of a large city with a population of almost five million. This is misleading: St Petersburg is essentially small. Its true population, after deduction of tourists and foreign businessmen and visiting Caucasian and Asian market traders and guesting mafiosi and banditi, is nearer to 900 thousand. Of this figure, which is still too high, about a third are suburbians, living in the white multi-storey coffins built by the Great Soviet Undertaker on the city's edges. Another third are home-grown millionaires or businessmen, existing in this city only notionally (or for purposes of tax evasion) - being in fact already Volvo- or Mercedes-owning citizens of the International Capitalist Community. Which leaves only 300 thousand or so ordinary citizens of St Petersburg. This figure is probably still too high.'

roger said...

Winna, pretty funny! I'd dispute one thing, though. The businessmen don't constitute, of themselves, that third -- rather, like bandit chiefs of old, one has to count their campfollowers -- ten to twenty guards per businessman, plus the servants, plus the prostitutes, plus the go betweens, the drug dealers, the lawyers, and throw in a fair number of politicos. A busy busy camp.

I don't know if you've ever seen Tycoon -- the Russian godfather. If you haven't, it is well worth renting.