To coincide with Maidan: Voices from the Uprising by Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Andrei Mai. We asked ten Russian playwrights to write a letter to future generations about the situation in their country.
A reminder to yourself:
It’s important not to forget that nothing is more important your friends.
It’s important not to take a side just because your friends have taken it.
It’s important not to condone violence.
It’s important to understand the reason behind the violence, and to try to understand the people who benefit from it.
It’s important not to overestimate the power of the people who benefit from it.
It’s important not to underestimate the power of the people who benefit from it.
It’s important not to believe in conspiracy theories and remember that the world is not entirely ruled by those in power.
It’s important to remember that the people can unite to do what’s right and that their strength can move mountains.
It’s important not to forget that “what’s right” can be a long debate without any single answer.
It’s important to remember that there are some things which are beyond debate: truth, freedom, justice, dignity.
It’s important not to get swept up in the romance of things, and not to believe anything too easily.
It’s important not to abandon the romance or the belief.
It’s important not to condone violence. It’s important not to condone violence.
It’s important to value nothing higher than human life.
It’s important not to forget what people live for.
It’s important not to get tired and say to yourself: “That’s it. This is all too complex and confusing, I don’t want to get involved because it’s all too scary and too emotionally and mentally draining.”
It’s important not to condone violence, not to condone violence, not to condone violence.
It’s important not to say: “Do what you like. I just want this all to be over so I don’t have to think about it anymore.”
Too many important things. It’s important not to let go of what’s not important.
And it’s important not to forget about those things when it’s all over.
That’s why you need to remind yourself.
Hello Valentina Spiridovna!
You probably don’t remember me. My name’s Valerii Pecheykin, I’m from Moscow. We met a few years ago, in Kiev. To be precise, it was the 23rd August 2011, in the park next to the Ukrainian Parliament.
I was sitting on a bench with my friends, a stupid tourist expression on my face. You came over to us, and you started talking. About us, about the weather, about Ukraine, about literature. I still remember our conversation, I’ve still got the book you brought with you. It has a photograph of a painting by Repin on the cover, “The reply of the Zaparozhian Cossacks”, and your satirical poetry inside it.
There’s a poem in your book about a fly, which flies into the Parliament and convinces the MPs to vote for it. I don’t know what kind of fly has bitten the MPs in there now. Nor do I know what your views are on recent events. I’ve lost your phone number, unfortunately, and I know you don’t use email or social networking sites. So I don’t have anyone to ask if you’re okay. I really hope you are.
You surprised us, back then, with your kindness. Despite the age difference, despite the fact that we spoke Russian and you Ukrainian, we understood each other.
Back then, sitting on the bench, we talked, amongst other things, about two things which are really important to me: humour and wit. I remember after 9/11 I heard someone say that in a few years’ time we’ll be able to make jokes about it. And I thought that was a really stupid thing to say, I thought it was outrageous.
But now I’ve started to understand. The things which are happening now, between our two countries and inside Ukraine, will seem like a cruel joke, too, someday. Perhaps they already do. History’s jokes can be bloody, and full of death. They can seem so stupid and careless. I’m already waiting for the day when “all of this” will be a joke again, will be just words.
Here’s an actual joke:
Odessa. Two flats across from one another. It’s morning, and the two neighbours are out on their respective balconies. One addresses the other:
– What’s the matter, Sonya, are you ill? I saw the doctor leaving your flat at two in the morning! – Oh give it a rest, Bella. If I saw a colonel leaving your flat at two in the morning I wouldn’t tell the whole bloody street we’re at war!
But it isn’t a joke anymore. We’re at war.
I saw Natasha yesterday. She’s already looking a lot better. Her voice was hoarse the last time I saw her, she was ill and could only speak in a whisper. We barely talked, that time, we had no idea how to get close to what had happened between us, between our two countries. We talked a bit about our children, about the holiday we had planned together for our families in August. My own voice sounded odd, like a stranger’s. Talking about going to beach, chatting through the evenings, drinking wine, preparing fish for the grill: it all seemed so unreal. I complained that my son’s got so paranoid, that he’s neurotic, that he’s frightened all the time that he’ll be arrested. That he’ll be arrested at kindergarten for not falling asleep at naptime, that he’ll be arrested on the metro for dropping chewing gum on the floor, things like that. It was something I knew we couldn’t argue about. We talked about something else, as well, I don’t remember what it was.
We were different people yesterday. We firmed up our plans for the holidays, hoping that they won’t have closed the borders by then, and that we’ll be able to meet up by the sea in a country that isn’t either of ours. It was great.
Then we talked about what might be in front of us:
– Are you going to attack us? – Yes, we don’t have any other option, a real crisis is getting closer and closer for us, and war is the best way we have of blaming it on external enemies. – And when are you going to attack us? – We don’t know.
We spoke calmly, but I could sense the tension in our voices. “When are you going to attack us?” We both felt a total sense of alienation. When I told my wife about it later, she told me that Jewish people never say “we” when they talk about their people as a whole. They talk about “The Jewish Nation”. I started to see why. We’re still inexperienced at all this, so we’ll have to learn some new rules. We’ll have to learn the etiquette of war. It’s not “we attacked you”, it’s “the Russian military made incursions into the territory of Ukraine.” It sounds better like that. We need to draw a line between our own actions and the actions of our governments. But how will we block out the feeling that all of this is our fault? There’ll still be a part of us that feels like we’ve done all this, that we’re to blame for everything that’s happened, not Russian soldiers or Ukrainian extremists but us, me and Natasha.
What will we end up doing in August? Will there even be an August? Nothing feels certain anymore… If August does come then I’ll write to you again, and tell you what I talked about with Natasha.
Civil war rages in Ukraine. Russian society feels at fever-pitch too: we’re connected to Ukraine. We share history, and no nation on Earth bears as much resemblance to our own. The people we’ve chosen to put in charge are after their own ends, and normal people are dying every day. More and more we hear talk about how our neighbours have always been our enemies, and our historical memory turns out to be twisted and short.
We need this kind of play, it’s a living testimony. It’s strange, but of all forms of information I trust words most of all. Even YouTube videos can deceive you. The different videos of events on the Maidan are perfects examples of this.
But it’s a difficult thing, to take witnesses’ voices off a dictaphone and put them into a play. Especially since, more often than not, these voices are so different from one another: confused and desperate, or, on the contrary, completely convinced of themselves.
I don’t know how all of this will end, most people don’t. But at least some words will be left behind, to help us understand the hopes and dreams of the people who were there. A living testimony, not a fabrication. That’s all most of us can hope for right now.
My Prayer, Spring 2014
The Internet is filled with people posting quotations from the classics. (No one’s really interested in reading the books themselves, or even the passages the quotations are taken from, anymore. The main thing is that the quote has some bite to it, so it jumps out at you as you’re browsing around disinterestedly on your mobile.)
Here’s a phrase that’s quoted a lot, and I’ll quote it today like a proper office procrastinator who’s always looking up quotes to avoid doing any actual work (though I’ve personally never actually worked in an office):
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Who said that? Tolstoy, Shaw, Flaubert? It doesn’t matter. Aristotle said something similar in his Nicomachean Ethics, that “it would seem that to be a good man is not in every case the same thing as to be a good citizen.”
Definitely. It’s obvious today (to me, at least) that a good citizen and a good person are completely different things.
A good citizen stands on the Maidan/wants the troops to be called in/storms government buildings/sings the national anthem with tears in his eyes. A good citizen is ready to die for his Russian St George ribbon/his Ukrainian yellow and blue ribbon. A good citizen mourns when his friends die for their homeland, and is prepared to avenge them. But he’s proud of their deaths! A good citizen erases the friends of his who turn out to be bad citizens from his contacts list and from his heart. A good citizen is quick on the trigger, and quickly learns how to throw rocks and use a slingshot accurately. And he enjoys it as the rocks fly out of his slingshot towards the enemies of his good-citizen homeland. A good citizen is glad when his enemies are burned alive and thinks that the corpses of his enemies always smell good. A good citizen is glad when separatists/extremists are set on fire, when scum/Putinists/thugs are beaten up, they deserve it, it’s what they wanted, it’s their own stupid fault. A good citizen is basically always just a little bit blood-thirsty, cruel and ruthless. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”, that’s the saying of the good citizen. Good citizens made Socrates drink hemlock, chased Aristides The Just out of Athens, informed the authorities that their neighbours were hiding excess grain during Collectivisation, dobbed in their comrades who came back from abroad with contraband books. Good citizens, faithful patriots, informed on my grandfather, an ordinary happy-go-lucky engineer, for telling a joke, and left my five-year old father an orphan, and me a granddaughter who never met her grandfather.
Leo Tolstoy, incidentally, one of the people who could’ve written the aphorism “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” was a bad citizen, he disagreed with conscription, and wrote about his disdain for compulsory military service.
I’m scared to death of good citizens. I like bad ones. I think it’s in my genetic memory. Bad citizens are used to breaking the law: they hid Jews in their cellars during the Nazi occupation, while good citizens informed on them. After the Revolution, bad citizens lied, and claimed children from aristocratic families were their own children, to make sure they got a free education. My great grandfather, a dispossessed mill owner from the Kuban, pretended to have gone deaf in order to survive the Revolution, and his former employees turned out to be bad citizens and didn’t inform on him, and he survived, got married, and had my grandmother.
Oh Lord, God above, make it so I never become a good citizen. Make it so I never want my husband, or my son, or my brother to be good citizens, so I never want them to murder anyone, like true patriots. I don’t want to sing the national anthem with tears in my eyes. I don’t want to be glad when anyone dies, I don’t want to be loyal to my country, I want to be loyal to my family and friends.
I want to die as bad a citizen and as good as person as you’ll allow me to, oh Lord.
I remember now! That wasn’t a quote from Tolstoy. But here’s one from him, about everything that’s happening today:
“Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most undoubted meaning is for rulers nothing else but a means of realizing their ambitions and venal ends; for the governed it is a renouncing of human dignity, intelligence, and conscience, and a slavish submission to those in charge… Patriotism is slavery.”
“All through the streets of Kiev
Someone’s wife looks for someone’s husband,
And all down her waxen cheeks
Not a single tear falls.
The gypsies have stopped telling fortunes,
The violins have stopped playing in the markets,
On Kreschatyk the horses have fallen,
In Lypky all smells of death.”
I remembered these lines of Mandelstam in March. They were written about the civil war of 1918. I followed the events this year in Kiev with a mixture of anxiety and hope, and for a while I really felt like the powers of good were closer to victory than they had ever been before. And I thought that if the Yanukovych regime fell, and if hope came to a land that’s so like ours, that sooner or later we would get our freedom too. Because it would show tyrants there is nowhere to hide. But just a few months later something unbelievable had happened, and it was once again literature which had predicted it all along. This time it was Vassily Aksenov, a writer from the “Sixtiers” set, whose alternative vision of history had come true. And in a cruel twist of irony his prediction, which he made in his 1979 novel “The Crimean Island”, came to life in what felt like the most grotesque way possible: a man named Aksenov ended up running the new Russian Crimea. From that moment on, I admit, I stopped following events in Ukraine. I stopped watching TV and I found reading posts about it on social networking sites unbearable. It felt like a lot of normally-sane people suddenly went mad.
In 1904 the Russian interior minister and police chief Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Pleve made what would become a famous pronouncement: “To stave off revolution, we need to give the people a little victorious war.” The war he was talking about was The Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5. The war unleashed the mighty Russian Empire against tiny Japan. And Russia lost.
That war didn’t stave off revolution in 1905, and that revolution was the first link in a long chain of events which led to further revolution in 1917, which proved fatal to the Russian Empire. For the long seventy years that followed Russia disappeared off the map and was replaced by a monstrous creation, the USSR.
A hundred and ten years after Pleve and Russia, back again, has decided to unite itself once more through a “a little victorious war”, currently rapidly escalating into bloody combat in the east of Ukraine. And the recent tragedy in Odessa marked a real point-of-no-return.
Ukraine has been building up to civil war for the last two months. Civil war is the most frightening kind of war. Many countries have had them, and they’ve proved to be the most traumatic and cruel events in many nations’ histories. It can take countries decades to recover, sometimes centuries. Wars like this cause empires to fall and borders to be redrawn. Wars like this do not have winners and losers.
And it’s happening here and now, right next to Russia. In the chronicles Kiev is known as the mother of Russian cities. And, to paraphrase a famous quote from Gogol’s Taras Bulba: “Kiev gave birth to Rus, and Kiev will kill it.” These are the kind of literature-centric thoughts I’ve had about Ukraine. And they’re really hard to put down, sitting in a quiet hotel room in an empty Siberian hotel in far-off Krasnoyarsk. The sounds of automatic weapons and the grinding tracks of personnel carriers can’t reach me here, and I can’t smell the burning smell of charred human flesh.
But maybe not for long. How long before the centre, held together through draconian laws, cannot hold anymore? These tectonic shifts on the territory of the former Soviet Union haven’t finished yet, and civil war here is looming closer and closer. Tension is spreading like wildfire across the former USSR. It’s a fire that’s engulfing Ukraine right now. I don’t know, I can’t even imagine, how this war will end. But whatever happens, people are dying. All I can do is grieve with Ukraine, and pray that this war’s terrible victims don’t lose their lives in vain. And hope that in twenty or thirty or forty or fifty years’ time the people of Ukraine don’t curse the Russians for their “little victorious war”.
we weren’t the ones who were kicked out of heaven. we don’t remember what heaven was like. not even that. we were never even there. we never walked in the garden. we never ate any apples. we ate quinces, and we didn’t eat them in a beautiful garden, but in the overgrown backyard of a cabin in the countryside. we had a brick bathhouse next to us with a wasps’ nest inside it, and we needed those heavenly apples to take the pain of their stings away, or at least to stop us being scared of being stung. we have no home and nowhere to go back to. and the kruschev flats where we ran about in the courtyards have been taken away from us. or, even if they weren’t taken away from us, we couldn’t call those five or six or nine-storey buildings home. we’re alone. i’m alone. there are no happy childhood shouts singing around me. i never stood at one with the landscape. who are we? tramps. there’s no place for us. in a way we don’t exist. our memories only grab hold of small sentences and flashes of past events. we recall humiliation, but we don’t remember the dusty feeling of our safe childhood home, where we wanted to return to read the classics, which in the old days we’d read over and over again before bed and after our sluggish but somehow necessary yet altogether regular masturbation sessions in the shower. because we never had that home. it never existed for us. not even in our heads. we lived in buildings which weren’t even built. not by our fathers or by our grandfathers. they only existed in our fantasies. futuristic and historical, with fuzzy facades from different epochs, we built them in our heads, built them on the sand, built them where there was never any heaven. and then a thought crept into our adolescent skulls. there was never any heaven anywhere. we were fucked, my friends, if you pardon the expression. the world had been completely destroyed, and it was a cosmic fuck-up we had to admit. and once we’d admitted the fuck-up everything felt much easier. there wasn’t anything to remember. we just have to remember what we want to get back to. and then go there. when we die. it’s like in dostoevskii. we’ll meet again, my little darlings. but we won’t. we’ll never meet again. because if we meet again, we won’t recognise each other. we’ll look each other in the eye and not recognise each other. we have nowhere to go back to. we build our houses on the sand and in our heads. a dry wind blows through the window and we close our eyes and listen as it blows about the house. the house built on the sand. where no one lives. which doesn’t exist. there’s no place for us. no living space assigned. o lord. i know you’re not fucking there. but if you suddenly show up, i beg you, let us rot. don’t save us. give us peace in eternal decay. give us a white, dead, empty, peaceful light. take away our genders and our religion and our love. obliterate our bodies. splat us like moths. and when you’ve crushed us take our memories too. and last of all, please, just take a little moment and give mankind a little gift: make us forget. we must forget. thank you. we’re close by, o lord. put your hands together. and pray for us, o lord.
Hello to you, my descendant, my grandson, my great-grandson, my great-great-great… You’ve probably already read in your history textbooks about the Maidan, about that mad Kiev February, that sudden Crimean March, and that frightening Odessan May. I want to tell you about myself in those days. When all of it started, my darling, when the people of Kiev took to the streets, incensed by their president’s unfulfilled promise about Europe, I was working in television. I remember how I interviewed a Kiev businessman on Skype, how he told me that the Maidan wouldn’t be anything like the Orange Revolution of 2004, that this was a conscious and peaceful civil protest, which would end as calmly as it began. And, at the time, I believed him. But, to me, that’s been a recurring theme in the first half of 2014: that all predictions turn out to be nonsense. That reality is always unpredictable. When half of the city was already out on the streets I felt for them, and even felt proud. Proud because it felt like a popular movement with real dignity, something I think we’ve lost, living in Russia. And when the Federation Council approved sending in troops to Crimea, I grabbed a brush, some paint and some cardboard, and, together with the person I love, made two placards. Mine said “Don’t take what isn’t yours”, and the other said “Another Prague Spring?” It was a cold windy day, and we walked to the main square of our city, holding our scrawlings. The police came over straight away and separated us, telling us that unless this was a registered protest we’d have to act as individual picketers, which meant standing at a distance of no fewer than fifty metres apart. They talked to me like a school-kid they’d caught skipping lessons. But, given that I had neither a massive tape measure nor the will to get into a fight, I went and stood on the other side of the river, where I couldn’t be accused of having any associates. I stood there for around three hours, my hands steady, and frequent passing pedestrians said things like “Who’s paying you for this?” and even, occasionally, approvingly: “You getting good Western money for this? Well done you.” And there were others, too: someone took a picture of me, as if I were a monkey at the zoo, and someone else smiled and nodded at me. Most people didn’t really “get the message” so I had to tell them that it referred to Crimea. The most difficult thing was when someone I know from Simferopol wrote to me, saying “You don’t get it, Polya, they’re banning the Russian language down here, so we want to come back to you, come under your flag.” That made me feel like an idiot, of course, so I tried to look up some opinion polls, but found only propaganda, from both sides. I’d turned myself into an enemy of the people, someone who thinks the wrong way, who refuses to drink in popular imperialist patriotism. But, my darling descendant, when governments redraw borders for political ends, when I look at a map of Russia with its new little tail, I feel nothing at all. Nothing. Back in March, on my mum’s birthday, I got in trouble with her friends for saying what I think, so they told me what was wrong with me, they said I’d been brainwashed by the mass-media, even though I’ve never seen any kind of Russian media putting across my point of view. So I invited the most esteemed international relations expert in our city onto air, but the programme was cut off mid-broadcast. And now it’s May. And I’m scared. I feel like a child, wishing I could do a magic spell, close my eyes and say “There’s no place like home!” to make everything go back to normal. I read about Odessa and Sloviansk and I don’t understand anything. I’m so sick of all this: of Russian propaganda, of the powers-that-be in Kiev, who’ve abused their people’s trust in them, of all the hatred on Facebook, of this constant need to talk about “our people” and “the enemy”, of myself, sitting there judging all this from the safety of my home. My darling, please try to remember the most important and the most difficult thing: whatever crowd you’re in, decide your own boundaries and try to be human, and humane.
Your grandmother, your great-grandmother, your great-great-great-grandmother, Polya.
I’m sorry we didn’t make it.
If you’re reading this letter then you’ll already be in a better position than I am to explain what happened. Because you have time on your side, you have the future, which gives everything perspective and meaning. But all around me right now there’s chaos: every day some new event blurs my vision, or takes it entirely away. Our heroes and villains have all got mixed up, it would be better to say there aren’t any heroes anymore.
And it looks like things will stay like this for a while.
Alas, we didn’t make it. But you have to realise… Well, forty years in the desert is still, you know, forty years. No one was going give them back to us, like a deposit, on the other side. And the desert is still the desert: there are wells and oases occasionally, but it’s basically just heat and diarrhoea and thirst. And we had no idea what would be waiting for us on the side. So don’t judge the ones who went back to the Kingdom of The Pharaohs. At least they knew what it was like there. But it was surprising to see that some of the ones who went back were ones who were born in the desert. But I guess, as I said: a desert’s still a desert.
Maybe we just lost our way. Maybe we never found our Moses. It doesn’t matter anymore.
2014 minus 1991 is twenty-three years. We managed more than half of it, but we gave up, with seventeen left to go.
You don’t need to forgive us: there’s no point. And don’t feel sorry for us, either: we betrayed you.
You’ll have to spend your forty years alone.
Translated by Rory Mullarkey