The Russian original was written for and published by Snob on March 12, 2014.
The other day I got a message from an old acquaintance of mine, an educated Russian speaker currently residing in the European Union. He took me to task for being overly critical. One cannot but feel, he informed me, that I’m ashamed of my motherland, that I don’t love it and that I dance to an Anglo-American tune. It is deplorable, he pointed out, that I should have chosen to side with the enemy in an information war. Aren’t there things that we can be proud of? And so on.
Arguing worldviews is, of course, pointless. That much I know from my own pig-headedness and from a shelf-full of books I’ve read on the topic. When the parties have different reference frames, they talk past each other. A conversation between a believer and an atheist is a classic case in point.
Atheist: “I don’t think there is a God.”
Believer: “You probably think that God has been hard on you.”
Cue baffled silence. How do you argue from here?
The only thing you can do in a situation like this is address someone who isn’t a party to the argument. This is why I’m addressing you, dear readers. Who the hell knows, after all? It might just so happen that my ramblings will make you pause the next time you are tempted to guilt-trip someone for slandering the Motherland. And there will be a next time. There’ll be plenty of next times. That much I know from another shelf-full and, again, from my own experience.
So much for introductions. Allow me to take you to a cosy first-world island in the middle of Stockholm. It’s a balmy night in early August. A crowd of Swedes and scary foreigners like me are listening to Regina Spektor, an American singer-songwriter who spent the first nine years of her life in Moscow. Regina Spektor sings her beautiful songs, she hits every note and every heart, and I stomp along clumsily and lip-synch when I remember the lyrics. English lyrics.
Suddenly, about halfway through the show, Regina Ilyinichna hits me below the belt. She breaks into “While the earth is still turning, while the light is still bright…”, a Bulat Okudzhava song. In Russian. A woman standing nearby turns to her friend, smiles and mimes a tear running down her cheek. She too must be from the former Soviet Union. For my part, I don’t have to mime anything. My eyes swell with actual tears almost immediately. There’s a lump burning my throat. All the beautiful songs that have been played so far suddenly seem to be hollow, glossy dummies.
Now if you are expecting moving conclusions concerning the unique soulfulness of Russian songs, you are expecting right. In my head they are certainly unique. A good song in Russian will always send way more shivers down my spine than a good song in any other language. My childhood was in Russian. Russian was the language my parents spoke. It was Okudzhava’s Russian lyrics that my mother would hum in the kitchen.
The motherland drug that’s always there in good Russian songs and books, in the idle dinner talk about Russia, in the buckwheat porridge, in the tea from faceted glasses in Soviet glass holders, in Gagarin’s smile – that drug is a part of me, a part as accidental and immutable as my date and place of birth. It makes no sense to be ashamed or proud of it. When the drug is harmless, the best thing you can do is lie back and enjoy it. Enjoy making tipsy Swedes listen to [Georgy Sviridov’s] Time, Forward! and conducting an air orchestra right from the couch. Enjoy waxing nostalgic with Lithuanian friends about the genius of Soviet animators. Enjoy rooting for Svetlana Aleksievich whenever Swedish newspapers tip her for a Nobel Prize. Enjoy every chance to write in Russian, sing in Russian, joke in Russian.
But a drug is still a drug. The moment you get carried away, you lose touch with reality. Desperate to get high, you slap the state all over your childhood, your mother and your Okudzhava. Your “Motherland” becomes a mob of rulers and bureaucrats going all the way back to Rurik. Any shadow cast on them will automatically fall on your grandmother’s pancakes and your favourite song from a Soviet sci-fi movie. From now on your happiest memories are hostage to random people – some of them nitwits, some bloodthirsty morons – who simply happened to wield power.
You start seeing “Motherland” in everything they’ve been calling “Motherland”. Now “Motherland” is the self-aggrandizing of balding boys who didn’t play enough war when they were little. “Motherland” sucks in all manner of filth: annexations, pogroms, deportations, mass terror. So long as the murderers speak your language. So long as the plunder is done in the name of a state that hides its ugly mug behind your culture.
There’s no mistaking the symptoms of this addiction for anything else. Let’s say you and a friend go to see Regina Spektor. You both weep as she sings Okudzhava. Now you’re leaving, nirvana still upon you.
You: “By the way, do you know why the song is called François Villon’s Prayer? Okudzhava said in an interview that it had nothing to do with Villon. Okudzhava wrote it about himself. It’s him talking to God. But the editors said a Soviet poet had no business talking to God. So he had to use Villon as a cover. And you know, I think it’s actually cool this way…”
Friend: “Who cares what it’s called? Why can’t you ever say anything about Russia without calling it a shithole? The Soviet Union was a perfect place for people like Okudzhava. They wrote intelligent songs for intelligent people. You think The Beatles or Elvis Presley had any idea who Villon was? As for censorship, they have that everywhere. For instance, on Fox News the other day…”
And so on. The drug addict’s brain has to whitewash the state whatever it takes. “Motherland” doesn’t do bad things, and if it does, that’s because everyone else does too, and so “Motherland” has every right to do bad things since otherwise it won’t “prevail”. Because the world, my friends, is not seven billion people stumbling around in search of happiness and fear of death on a tiny planet in an infinite universe. No no no, the essence of this world is a geopolitical cat fight in a blood-soaked sandbox. A never-ending clash of raisons d’état in the name of raisons d’état.
Margarita Simonyan [the editor-in-chief of the RT news network] put this worldview in a nutshell in a recent blog post: “…I think that Russia is doing the right thing. Because I am a Russian citizen.” This paragon of lousy logic and moral relativism is touted as the highest virtue by Motherland Drug addicts the world over – from the US to Zimbabwe. It is echoed and regurgitated; it is applauded; it is exploited to score political points.
But I refuse to love the drug. I think that a thing is right when it conforms to my understanding of what is moral, coupled with an understanding of what is possible. I know that my view of morality may be inadequate. But at least I apply it in the same way for everyone, regardless of their passport, first language or place of birth.
I refuse to let the state smear my memories of my parents or the first coltsfoot flowers around our house. Whatever the fans of the ersatz motherland have to say, a state is just an administrative tool for governing a bunch of random people living on a random patch of Earth’s landmass. Nothing more and nothing less. Its raison d’être is to ensure a level playing field, guarantee rights, catch criminals, repair hospitals and build schools where kids are taught logic as understood by Aristotle, not by Margarita Simonyan.
No state on the tiny planet called Earth does its job perfectly. Funds are misspent and lies are told everywhere, and geopolitical games are played nearly everywhere. Some occupy Iraq looking for fictional weapons of mass destruction. Some annex Crimea and work up millions of people into a chauvinist frenzy.
You know what I want to do more than anything else right now? As I’m finishing up this column? I want to write about brilliant art. About the Russian language. About my dad in the springtime. About romantic rendezvous in the parks of Tsarskoe Selo. About Regina Spektor singing Okudzhava, for that matter. I want to tell everything to go to hell and write only about my motherland. My real motherland. The kind that you don’t go around professing your love for because you don’t want to sound sleazy and creepy, like someone who keeps saying, “I love my friends.”
But I have a passport of the state called the Russian Federation. I’m not ashamed of this passport, and I’m not proud of it. It’s just a reminder that there are states on this planet, most of them pretty lousy, and that there’s one state that I’m responsible for more than for all the others.
This is why I must be “overly critical”. I must wage an “information war” on violence, corruption and ignorance. My overly critical colleagues are waging the same war in other countries, where people speak their native languages. But my frontline is Russia.
Because I am a Russian citizen.