Posts Tagged ‘Marci Shore’

First time in English: a powerful Russian voice from the Ukrainian conflict

Monday, August 28th, 2017
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A field in the Donbas. (Flickr)

Award-winning Ukrainian writer Vladimir Rafeenko, who writes in Russian, spent his whole life in the city of Donetsk, in the eastern Ukrainian mining region called the Donbas. Since the war between Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian state broke out in spring 2014, Rafeenko moved near Kiev.

When the characters in his novels refer to “Westerners,” it’s western Ukraine, facing Poland, Romania, and Hungary rather than Russia.

Ukrainian writer – in Russian.

It’s one of many terms that need unpacking in Семь Укропов (Sem’ Ukropov), in English “Seven Dillweeds,” taken from Rafeenko’s longer work, this year’s Долгота дней (Dolgota dnei, The Length of the Day). “Dillweed,” in the title, is Russian slang for a Ukrainian. Marci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, translated the piece in the current Eurozine, and explains some of the references for us in the introduction to this chilling short story about the conflict in Rafeenko’s native land, Donbas.

This story is the first time Rafeenko has appeared in English. An excerpt from the excerpt, about Pashka and his stepfather:

Matvei Ivanovich, having appeared out of the blackness of the coalminers’ night, took the boy under his protection, and succeeded in winning his heart.

Matvei Ivanovich had come there at a mature age; he’d come because of his ‘work transfer.’ And as he himself admitted, it wasn’t that he didn’t like Ukraine, it was more that he didn’t understand it. As he would say to the boy he was raising: ‘I don’t understand the Ukrainian language, son, and also all these complicated things with Stepan Bandera. I don’t like westerners, you understand? They’re barbaric somehow. Just barbaric people. And they only hang around with each other. Back at home there were a few of them working at our mine. And they only talked to their own and only in their own way. They even got beaten for that more than once. I don’t think there was any sense in that, though – just made them more spiteful. And so I figure: once you’ve got people like that, what can you do with them?’ …

Matvei Ivanovich tilted his head in a funny way, waved his hands, poured himself another shot of vodka, grabbed a half-salted pickle.

 спасибо, Marci.

спасибо, Marci.

When the shooting started in town, Matvei Ivanovich proceeded to study the situation. By then he’d already left his job, since he had a solid pension and at any rate the miners weren’t being paid any more. So he had time on his hands to learn about the state of the world. He walked around, talked to people. He would come back in the evening, tired, restless, but generally satisfied.

In the beginning of June, after he’d gotten his pension and the economy had sunk, Matvei Ivanovich was found in a city park, dead. He was lying in water with a sad smile and a deep gash on the right side of his neck. At the burial, Nina Ivanovna sobbed terribly. When they lowered the casket, she jumped into the pit. She tried to stab herself in the heart with a knife. But after a week she found work in the town centre as a janitor in a student dormitory, and in the new job she revived a little.

Pashka saw his stepfather every day in his dreams. There Matvei Ivanovich smiled and told stories, stories without endings and without beginnings, stories about coal, about Aleksandr Nevskii, about Belka and Strelka and the Battle of the Kalka. Truth be told, Pashka just caught the general tone, the details he could only make out hazily, as if through dirty glass. Eventually he signed up for the war against Right Sector, and thus for Gagarin and Gogol, and above all for Matvei Ivanovich, agronomist by his first diploma. They gave the boy a Kalashnikov and two magazine cartridges and sent him to fight with three dozen others like himself. It turned out, unfortunately, that in combat they were not alone – the enemy was there, too. And it quickly became clear that in a war, people kill each other. But truth be told, Pashka didn’t have time to make sense out of any of it.

Read the whole thing here.

Marci Shore on Ukraine: fighting continues, and so does trust, loyalty, and love.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016
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Serhij Żadan

Zhadan: “Don’t listen to the propaganda. There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.”

Over a 24-hour period this weekend, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 42 times, according to the press service of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) Headquarters. (Link here; map below.) These weren’t random incidents, but intense fighting, particularly in the Donbas region. “In the Mariupol sector, the enemy used banned 120mm and 82mm mortars to shell the town of Krasnohorivka, and the villages of Shyrokyne and Talakivka,” according to the report.

While that’s not as exciting as the latest gaffe from our president-elect, it should arouse a little more press interest than it does. 

marci-shore

  Marci

Here’s the news in more literary form. We’ve written about writer Serhiy Zhadan, the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine, before. (See “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” here, and then a year later here.) In the current New Yorker, Marci Shore writes about Ukraine, and the author whose most recent novel Voroshilovgrad won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland.  

Marci reprises the conflict:

On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For many Ukrainians this felt like the end of their future. Hundreds of people, students in particular, gathered on the Maidan, the large square in the center of Kiev, to protest. Around 4 a.m. on November 30th, Yanukovych sent his riot police to beat up the students. He was counting, it seems, on the parents’ pulling their children off the streets. Instead the parents joined their children there. The next day more than half a million people came to the Maidan, insisting, “They cannot be permitted to beat our children.”

Zhadan

He took a beating.

“The government has blood on its conscience and has to answer for it,” Zhadan said a few days later, in an interview with the young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek. All that winter the stakes, and the violence, increased. …

After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.

Please read her article here, if for no other reason, it dispels the fiction that Ukrainians somehow really in their heart of hearts want to be Russians – a convenient notion that allowed us to turn our backs on Crimea and, increasingly, on eastern Ukraine.

Marci on Zhadan’s novel and its protagonist Herman:

In Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan describes a kind of war zone at the Ukrainian-Russian border near Rostov: men wearing camouflage and balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs, occasionally taking a hostage or two. He describes omnipresent violence at a time when there is no war—a backdrop of brutality, accepted as a given. “You know, before the war, all of these things naturally appeared entirely different: the border with Russia, the army fatigues, the daily readiness for fighting,” Zhadan told me in a letter. “There was no catastrophism in all of that.” (I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)

voroshilovgradThe balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and the culture of gangsters are connected to bottomless corruption. The word, or rather one of the words, for corruption in Russian is prodazhnost’ (in Ukrainian, prodazhnist’); it means “saleability” and refers to the understanding that everything and everyone can be bought. A peculiar relationship between prodazhnost’, “saleability,” and chestnost’, “honesty,” belongs to the essence of the Donbas. Where there is no trust in the system, trust in one’s friends is essential. Where there is no law, personal solidarity is paramount. And so what is important is not for whom one votes but how one treats one’s friends. Chestnost’ is related both etymologically and conceptually to chest’, “honor.” What is so striking about Herman’s experiences amid the savagery of the Donbas is the absence of duplicity. Voroshilovgrad is an unsentimental novel about human relationships in conditions of brutality in which there is not a single act of betrayal.

Herman is willing to risk everything for his missing brother, for [characters in the novel] Injured and Kocha, for Olga, for spectres of times past, even when this appears to make no sense. While attempting to escape from the biplane guys, Herman finds himself on a private train, where the train’s “authority” gives him some advice: “You’ve got this crazy idea in your head that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch—you’re clinging to your emptiness. There’s not a fuckin’ thing here! Not a single fuckin’ thing.” Yet Zhadan wants us to understand that there is something to stay for. In his prose there is no nostalgia, but there is genuine affection, rough and profound. Even in this brutish habitus, there is trust, loyalty, and love. The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”

Farewell to one of Europe’s leading thinkers, Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
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“Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist.”

Leonidas Donskis died yesterday from an apparent heart attack. He was 54. The Lithuanian Jewish philosopher and public intellectual – he was a political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, political commentator, and professor –was little known in the West, but is a major figure in Eastern European thought. He was also a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014.

One of Europe’s leading poets, Tomas Venclova (his correspondence with Donskis was published last year), wrote to the Book Haven: “Leonidas Donskis was the only one Lithuanian philosopher (mainly historian of ideas) who merited the title. I would say he was on a par with, say, Konrad, Krastev, or even Havel. His sudden and untimely death is a terrible loss.” Tomas Venclova and Donskis were both born in Klaipėda, and both attended the University of Vilnius.

Donskis recently coauthored a book with a man he considered of the greatest thinkers of our times, Zygmunt Bauman. The book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013) was “a high point of my life,” Donskis had said. “Such an opportunity can occur only once in a lifetime.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Correspondent Venclova

At a discussion at the Central European Form in Bratislava last November, he spoke on the role of the intellectual in today’s world: “The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that if you want to be a star in your society you need to invent yourself either as celebrity or as victim. But I think there is also a third way out for the intellectuals, who way too often become fear-mongers. This is in my opinion their sin against societies. At the same time, we still have many sober voices resisting this temptation. The principle of intellectual or journalistic work is not to scare or paralyze people. The best thing to do now is to encourage audiences to live their lives without fear, in dignity.”

“The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity, to its own antidote. For instance, in terms of political existence, I am afraid Europe will become even more securitized and surveilled. But the crucial thing is to defend the humanistic legacy of Europe. First and foremost, our task is not to become paranoid or fear-ridden. The challenge for the 21st century is to protect democratic Europe with respect to our humanistic sensibilities, and respect to human rights and civic liberties. This will be quite difficult, but we must stand together for it, especially given the rise of violent political extremism.”

A few words on Donskis from some important voices on my Facebook feed:

marci-shoreMarci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968: I’m writing from Belgrade, in shock at the news of the death of our friend Leonidas Donskis. I had just seen Leonidas in Krasnogruda, at Fundacja Pogranicze on the Polish-Lithuanian border, at our seminar “Second reading: Tony Judt on Arendt, Camus, Miłosz, Kołakowski.” In Krasnogruda, he spoke about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita as a novel about the devil as superfluous in modern politics: we are in the age of do-it-yourself. He spoke about the death of the Left in Lithuania and about “ontological junk food” – quick, ready-made theories for easy consumption here and now. “I’m afraid there is just a void,” Leonidas said. But he never stopped trying to fill the void with a passionate insistence on truth and ethics. We were meant to meet in Vienna two weeks from now at this year’s Leszek Kołakowski symposium devoted to the topic “Paradises Lost: Entzauberung, Utopia, and their Afterlives.” I never imagined “afterlives” taking on this additional meaning. Now of all times our world could not afford to lose Leonidas.

TimSnyderTimothy Snyder, author of Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Between Hitler and Stalin: Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist; liberal in his politics, generosity and individuality; trilingual in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. A rapid wanderer in our best traditions, a loyal companion with expansive ideas of friendship; a European link to much of what was admirable his Soviet generation and the ones that came before; an eager interlocutor who wanted to bring out the best in those he admired (such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tomas Venclova with whom he wrote books); a patient teacher whom I last saw among grateful students, filling my notebook with the connections I never would have seen without him.

iosselMikhail Iossel, author of Every Hunter Wants to Know: A Leningrad Life and contributor to The New Yorker: I am absolutely devastated. I loved him dearly. He was one of the most brilliant, altogether remarkable people I have ever met, one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, one of world’s most interesting philosophers and social thinkers, an enormously erudite and prolific scholar and a passionate patriot of his country, son of Holocaust survivors and member of the European Parliament – and also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most decent and honest people I’ve ever known. In point of fact, I have never known anyone quite like him, in all of my long life: he was absolutely unique, unrepeatable and, to my mind, a perfect human being. I cherished each and every one of our conversations: in Lithuania, in New York, and, most frequently, online – about politics, Europe, Lithuania, Jewish history, Russia, art… It is impossible to believe he is gone. The world was so much better with him in it. There are no words….

Postscript on 9/23: We received this message from Beatriz Miranda in Mexico City, and thought we’d share it (it’s also in the combox below): “With great sadness we have received the news about the death of our beloved friend, Leonidas. I met him in Amsterdam. The University of Amsterdam asked me to invite Prof. Bauman to present their book Moral Blindness in Amsterdam. The invitation was accepted by Prof. Bauman with a condition: to bring Leonidas too. It was the beginning of real friendship. Later on, he came to Mexico invited by the 17, Institute of Critical Studies and helped us to think critically about the role of universities and academics. I will never forget the way he conducted himself, with humility and sweetness. He even travelled with me around Mexico City by metro. He ate at the Coyoacan Market and enjoyed visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacan. During that visit and taken by his passion for jazz he proposed to the Institute to give the doctorate Honoris Causa to the great jazz musician Vyacheslav Ganelin. We did it last January but unfortunately, Leonidas could not come. We will keep his words alive in our Institute. This is important especially in this violent time. Leonida’s call for peace and understanding will be missed but kept immortal through his work and publications. 17, Institute will keep the promise to translate some of his work into Spanish. Gracias querido, Amigo Leonidas! You will be missed.”

Postscript on 9/26: Read a few of his reflections and aphorisms here.

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015
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marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

The “politics of the sinless” and the “superficiality of the everyday”: Michnik, Havel, and the post-communist world

Saturday, February 21st, 2015
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Long friendship: Michnik and Havel in 2011

Marci Shore, acclaimed author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, has written an important article – indispensable writing, really – over at the Weekly Standard. It’s one that merits not only reading, but reading – so I’m printing out a version for slow reading when I get some more work done this weekend. The focus of her essay is a Adam Michnik‘s The Trouble with History, edited by Irena Grudzińska Gross and published last year by Yale University Press. The Book Haven has written about Polish journalist and Solidarity leader Michnik here and here, and about Marci here and here and here and about Irena here and here. Read Marci’s article in its entirety here.  Fellow dissident Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and president of the post-communist Czech Republic, also plays a role in the piece – we’ve written about him here and here and here. A few excerpts from Marci’s article below:

The story of “living in truth” involves urban intellectuals hiking up a mountain. In August 1978, four Charter 77 signatories (including Havel, who was not ordinarily much of a hiker) met with their Polish counterparts (including Michnik) on Sněžka Mountain on the Czechoslovak-Polish border. Havel pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack. A lifelong friendship was not all that resulted from that first encounter between the two men.

On Sněžka, they spoke about the political resonance of seemingly insignificant moral acts. Michnik asked Havel to write down his thoughts. Three months later, an underground courier appeared at Michnik’s Warsaw apartment with a manuscript entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s essay introduced an ordinary green-grocer who, every morning, displays in the shop window a sign stating: “Workers of the world unite!” Neither he nor his customers believe in the Communist slogan. Even the members of the regime no longer believe in it. All know it to be a lie.

troublewithhistoryYet what else can the greengrocer do? If he were to refuse to display the sign, he could be questioned, detained, arrested—which suggests that displaying a slogan in which no one believes is of great importance. If, one day, all the greengrocers were to take down their signs, that would be the beginning of a revolution. And so the seemingly powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. He bears responsibility; by failing to “live in truth,” people like the green-grocer “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

This is a diagnosis of post-1968 communism as a descent into inauthenticity, and it comes not from the comfortable classics of Western liberal (or conservative) thought but, rather, from Martin Heidegger.

***

One lesson for the West was about responsibility in conditions of moral ambiguity. In Havel’s autobiographical one-act play Audience (1975), Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk is a dissident playwright working at a brewery. The secret police have demanded that the brewmaster file weekly reports on Vaněk. The brewmaster becomes nervous: He finds it difficult to compose the reports. Could Vaněk, perhaps, write them? “You could do that much for me, couldn’t you?” he asks Vaněk. “It would be child’s play for you! You’re a writer, damn it, right?”

Vaněk appreciates the brew-master’s kind treatment of him; nonetheless, he refuses to write the reports about himself. For Vaněk, this is “a matter of principle.” The brewmaster breaks down:

And what about me? You’re just gonna let me sink, right? You’re just gonna say, fuck you! It’s okay if I end up being an asshole! Me, I can wallow in this shit, because I don’t count, I ain’t nothin’ but a regular brewery hick—but the VIP here can’t have any part of this! It’s okay if I get smeared with shit, so long the VIP here stays clean! .  .  . All I’m good for is to be the manure that your damn principles gonna grow out of .  .  .

michnik2

Decries “official memory politics”

In Audience, everyone is implicated: the regime, the brewmaster, Vaněk himself. The brewmaster is a variation of the greengrocer; he is both victim and oppressor.

For Michnik, among the disappointments of post-communism has been the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, accompanied by an official memory politics known as “historical policy.” The essence of historical policy is a denial of moral ambiguity and a failure to take responsibility. It is an attempt to enforce a national historical narrative that presents “the thesis that all Polish disasters were the result of Polish benevolence, trust, and gentleness, and of the malice and cruelty of foreigners.”

For Michnik, historical policy is absurd: Communism had not simply been a Soviet occupation; everyone had taken part. In order to do something good, one had to participate in a system that was evil. Between heroes and villains there were many shades of gray. This was among the reasons why “lustration”—the purging from government and public life of those who had collaborated with the secret police—was not a straightforward matter. Many were put on secret police lists of potential informers without their knowledge. Others found themselves on those lists because they had once met with an agent at a restaurant or had succumbed to threats to their children.

Moreover, those placed most at risk by lustration were those who had been in the opposition—after all, it was their circles the secret police had tried to infiltrate. Those safest under lustration were the greengrocers. The post-Communist antipathy towards the dissidents, Havel believed, had its roots in the dissidents’ serving as people’s bad consciences. He and Michnik were among those who, under communism, had sat in prison the longest. They were also among those most willing to forgive. For Michnik, historical policy and lustration reflected a Jacobin-like impulse to impose a politics of the sinless. And the problem with revolutionary purity was that it led to the guillotine.

***

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Read her article. Please.

The trouble with revolution, Michnik finds, is also its aftermath: the superficiality of the everyday. Once upon a time, East Europeans had stayed up all night copying censored poems by hand. Now, no one had time to read serious literature. The omnipresence of Communist propaganda had been replaced by the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic tabloids. The revolution had brought the end of censorship. Then, the market had taken over—and had proven to be tawdry. “Suddenly all great value systems are collapsing,” Michnik observed.

“[A]long with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values,” Havel said during one of his last conversations with Michnik. For Michnik, this “axiological vacuum” was “a typical phenomenon of periods of restoration as described by Stendhal in The Red and the Black: this is a time of cynicism, intrigues, careerism.” Michnik grew preoccupied with Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s weak plebian hero who seeks authenticity in illicit love affairs: “Let everyone take care of himself in the desert of egoism called life,” Julien says.

In 1989, Michnik’s friend, the philosopher Marcin Król, was among those who had considered liberty to be the great priority. But individualism began to dominate all other values. “We were stupid,” Król said in an interview last year. No longer does anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dramas of characters like Julien Sorel resulted from their awareness of the weight of their actions. The lack of an answer to the question of whether they behaved well or badly was the source of great suffering. “Today,” Król said, “the lack of an answer does not hurt.” And that is the problem: It should hurt.

“Why was there no ‘happily ever after’?” Marci Shore looks at Europe post-1989

Friday, December 13th, 2013
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marci-shoreWe’ve written about Marci Shore, author of the acclaimed Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, before – here.  This week, Wiesława Niziol brought the following interview from New Eastern Europe to my attention. It’s rather remarkable. A few excerpts:

One of the first, most naïve questions I wanted to understand was: Why was there no “happily ever after”? From the point of view of an American teenager, nineteen eighty-nine was a fairy tale: for all of my life and my parents’ lives, there was an Evil Empire where people were thrown into prison, sometimes beaten and tortured, at the very least condemned to live in greyness and sadness, forbidden from leaving—and then suddenly one day it was over. I thought that coming to Eastern Europe would be like arriving at a non-stop party, that everybody would be celebrating his or her liberation. Of course, it was nothing like that. The 1990s were in some ways not very happy times at all. There was a sense that now people were suffering and being exploited in entirely different ways from the ways in which they had suffered and been exploited under communism. And there was a sense of the past as tormenting.

People had made difficult choices in a world in which those choices had perhaps seemed the best possible ones. And suddenly they had to account for those choices in a new world in which all the rules had changed. What might have felt like the best possible decision in difficult circumstances suddenly no longer seemed liked the best possible decision when judged by the gaze of a new world. In some ways this book is my attempt to explain why the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not a fairy tale’s happy ending. …

marciCzesław Miłosz was right when he wrote that “the habit of civilisation is fragile”—and that “[t]he man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” That sense of the impossibility of understanding, of being understood, and the drama, the resentment, the jealousy and bitterness that often accompanied that feeling—perhaps that has not entirely disappeared, but it has faded. …

I think, in a certain sense, that nationalist populism is a response to a feeling of rootlessness, or groundlessness. It’s an attempt at psychic consolation via the exporting of guilt, the displacement of what haunts us onto “others” who are not ourselves. Nationalism is arguably always about that: a failure to take responsibility, an attempt to export that which makes us uncomfortable. It is completely understandable in human terms. I can empathise with the desire to do that. That said, I think this kind of attempt to find a safe place for ourselves in the world will always fail. There is something rootless about the human condition. We are, alas, thrown into the world and then have to go about finding—that is, creating—a place for ourselves in it.

Moreover, space has changed. The West is no longer far away, it’s no longer even so clear where the border lies, or whether there is a border. “The West” was once that place that was not accessible. Now the fall of communism, the expansion of the European Union, and the Schengen zone have created a situation in which it’s “normal” to wander around Europe without a passport.

Read the rest here.

Applebaum and Shore: life under communism and its long, bitter aftertaste

Friday, August 2nd, 2013
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Decisions, decisions…

I listened to my mother.

I listened to Mummy.

My political education began very young.  When people would praise FDR in my family home, my mother would hiss “Yalta” between her teeth.  The 1945 photograph of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting side by side at the Crimean resort elicited the muttered remark, “a bunch of criminals” (although she read Churchill’s multi-volume series on the war).  “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin,” Churchill naively opined.

Having a mother who was 100% Magyar was a good antidote to political correctness.  And she never forgot nor forgave the conference that forked over most of Eastern Europe to Stalinist rule.  (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that her daughter writes so much about Cold War-era writers from Poland and Russia.)

So I read with interest the Christopher Caldwells discussion of two impressive and recent books in the New Republic, Anne Applebaum‘s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and Marci Shore‘s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.  I have endless admiration for both women.  You can read the article, “When Evil Was a Social System: The Moral Burdens of Living under Communist Rule in Eastern Europe,” here.

applebaumbookI pulled out piles of excerpts to cite, but this humble blog post quickly became top-heavy, and I felt the ominous presence of the copyright cops outside my door.  Let me settle instead for citing Caldwell’s concluding paragraphs:

“These two books are a sign that something is changing in our understanding of the twentieth century. Applebaum and Shore, while close in age, are on opposite sides of a generational razor’s edge. Applebaum, born in the 1960s, has adult memories of the Cold War; Shore, born in the 1970s, does not. Applebaum speaks to, and in the idiom of, those who survived totalitarianism. She dedicates her book to ‘those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.’ Her big, resolute book gives us the most authoritative knowledge we have about communism, and only the most authoritative knowledge.

marci“Shore is engaged in a different project. Her book shows what erudition looks like in the Internet Age. Like a blog string, it records every false step she makes on her way to understanding. Shore almost never writes about important matters in her own voice. This means a loss of authority compared with Applebaum’s more classical style, but it allows her to share more with the reader. It frees her of the historian’s superego. The question of whether the reader can handle certain of the explosive things she has to say about Jews and communism appears not to have occurred to her.  …

“Reasonable historians may differ about whether this sort of history-through-memoir is more honest (transparent) or more cowardly (non-
committal) than the standard kind. But it will be clear to any reader of good faith that Shore has chosen historical guilt as her subject in order to deepen our understanding, not to sow discord or rile anyone up. She has found a way to illuminate certain Polish and Jewish ideas about the worst episodes of the twentieth century that is frank, fresh, and gripping. Guilt, after all, is not just self-inflicted injury but productive moral work. At any time, “guilty” will describe almost any conscience functioning as it should.”

Read the whole article here.

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Right on.

Meanwhile, a final anecdote lingers:  “Applebaum mentions a girl sent home from school for saying, ‘my grandfather says Stalin is already burning in Hell’—sent home not because the teacher disapproved, but to protect the girl, her friends, her grandfather, her school, and the people who ran it. In such circumstances, propaganda can be a balm. It provides a way for men to lie to themselves, to rationalize submission to the strong, to save face. ‘I don’t like everything Stalin says,’ you could mutter (quietly!) to your wife, ‘but someone has to do something about the illiterate.’” Do I detect a whiff of Czesław Miłosz‘s  ketman here?

 

New York City in 62 hours: revisiting old memories, making new ones

Monday, May 6th, 2013
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I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.”  Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowski was on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.

First, I spoke at a commemorative event for Krzysztof Michalski, the founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was Milena Jesenská Fellow a few years ago.  “Democracy is Controversy Plus Solidarity: In the Absence of Krzysztof Michalski” was sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute, in conjunction with the P.E.N. Festival in New York City.

The panel left to right:  Alfred Gusenbauer, former prime minister of Austria;  literary historian and author Irena Grudzinska Gross of Princeton;  Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum; Marci Shore of Yale author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and Humble Moi…

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Whoops!  There’s someone missing from this line-up.  Same cast of characters, but below you can also see Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands (and Marci Shore’s husband) at far right.

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Next, some of us who met for the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City two years ago decided to celebrate a reunion.  What better place than the famous Russian Samovar, a longstanding mecca for the Russian literati (and other Slavs … and non-Slavs)? The place was a familiar haunt for Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Miłosz’s.

The Russian Samovar’s legendary proprietor Roman Kaplan appeared toward the evening – he’d founded the hang-out with Mikhail Baryshnikov and he’d also been an especially close friend of Brodsky’s.  No sooner did he find out about my association with the Nobel poet than he pulled me into the corner seat, where Joseph Brodsky had usually held court, and a photo with the (by then) glassy-eyed Moi was snapped.  Glassy-eyed, but nevertheless … stepping into a page of New York cultural history.

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Finally, here’s the whole reunion crew.  This is the only photograph in the group that is not by Zygmunt, because that’s him at far left, looking gravely into the camera (in the mirror you can see the mystery guest photographer’s arms).  The poet Anna Frajlich is next to Zygmunt, then Alla Roylance, Moi, Izabella Barry, and Władek Zając.  Couldn’t find a better group of people.  And you’d hard-pressed to find a better dinner, beginning with vodka infused with horseradish, cranberries, and lemon (you can read about them at the Paris Review here) continuing with Georgian and traditional Russian dishes, and finishing with samovar tea with jam.  Dostoevsky would have approved entirely.

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After the panel discussion, we ended at the residence of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik.  Risotto with white spargel, a perfectly chilled white wine from the Kamp River region, quince schnapps, and plenty of Mozartkugeln.  Can’t top that … but ohhhhh, I wish I could find that brilliant Austrian wine here, but the ambassador, rightly known as a connoisseur, told me the American market likes its wines a little more fruity, a little less delightfully sharp – you have to go to Vienna to get these.  As good an incitement as any, should you need one.

Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner: