War in You and in Me
War in you and in me. Civil war.
I’m tired. Read me a story,
take the stockings off your right and left feet
and lie down on the sofa with me,
quiet and virginal
without a hint of gender,
in the nameless living room. While the Russians
stick each other with knives.
While soldiers stomp on women’s breasts
in prisons and cellars.
Tanks move slowly, tanks move in columns.
Let’s be husband and wife,
with no need for words,
take my voice like a violin
and put it in its leather case.
»Good morning, Führer! – we are your people!
Shove our faces into the asphalt,
pierce our backs with the Kremlin’s stars,
we’ve been declared
Fascism and Russia – a long story.
Hold me so tight I can’t breathe – don’t let me go anywhere,
not even to my mother, to say nothing of anywhere else.
Just stroke my hair.
The poem I chose as the epigraph for this essay was written long before the leaders of my country started to speak about »a new Cold War.« I wasn’t trying to make any predictions. It was simply an outburst, a solitary protest, my personal disagreement with a regime that was gathering strength. On New Year’s eve 1999, when the entire nation was joyously celebrating the loss of the freedom that Mikhail Gorbachev had given them (for which he would later be vilified by his own people) I had no way to imagine the extent of the catastrophe. What happened subsequently and is still happening in Russia recalls the famous painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder The Parable of the Blind. In a very short period various individuals turned into a faceless mass, a mob, marching into the maw of a cavern. In place of my native language, all I hear is a bestial roar.
But maybe it wasn’t so sudden? Maybe the mindset of a serf had never really left the collective unconscious? Perhaps the movement toward negation of any sign of life really is the »Russian national idea?« – »Ban it.« »Destroy it.« »Get rid of it.«
My contemporaries have been transformed from simple serfs into cannibals, and have completely lost their moral bearings. They’ve returned to paganism, barbarism and they bow before a single god – Evil.
The enormous geographical space that calls itself by the tender name »The Fatherland« is waging war. Both internally and externally. It annexes and bombs other territories and it simultaneously works over any of its own citizens who show the least tendency to get out of line. Up to and including liquidating them. Anyone who does not agree with the situation quickly enters the ranks of the hostages. There’s no choice: you either have to sink into internal exile or leave the country. Most of the more recent emigrants sincerely love Russia and don’t connect the country with the government. But this is a huge error in my view, since the government is nothing more than the reflection of millions of individual »I’s«. Everyone knows that the machine of repression has no soul. It bends and breaks people randomly. Even those who are most loyal to the regime, who believe that they can buy their way out of bad outcomes, can fall under its knife. They turn away, close their eyes.
Indifference. Isn’t that the same as ignorance?
St. Isaac the Syrian compared a sinner to a dog who licks the blade of a saw, failing to recognize that he is injuring himself, »drunk on the taste of his own blood.«
That is how my country looks these days.
I’m a person without a past. If you look back, all you can see are shards of a broken mirror. After the death of my adoptive father (I can’t bring myself to use the work stepfather in this context), who was destroyed by his country in the person of a gang of scum; the treachery of a close friend, who failed the test of genuineness; so many personal losses, it’s hard to recreate any kind of coherent picture without opening scars. Each time I try to describe a specific piece of this tragedy in my prose, to bring the truth to the surface, I’m forced to confront an enormous emotional shock. But without doing so, narrative would be impossible. To put the mirror back together again. But no matter what, it remains a mirror made of shards.
This summer, after I returned from Germany where, thanks to a fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, I had the unique opportunity to work on two books – one of poetry and one of prose – simultaneously, I was able to be alone with my mother for the first time. We spent the three summer months in our house in the country, a house that was built with great love. Trying to preserve the small amount that remains of our former life. My mother is my only family. And it is only her presence, despite our separation, that gives meaning to existence, to all that I do.
I was writing, finishing a book of stories and keeping a blog, in which I reacted fairly sharply to each new »arm twisting« that was turning the country into a concentration camp. A person comes into the world free and that is how he should leave it. No one can take away that right. You can’t turn a real personality into a fool or simply break him. It is of course possible to destroy him physically, as was done to the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. His murder near the walls of the Kremlin was an open demonstration of authoritarian power. A warning to anyone with liberal or free-thinking inclinations. Evil wanted everyone to see that nothing could challenge it. And that it had no boundaries.
Nemtsov’s death was also my personal tragedy.
The oratorio Kursk, whose libretto is based on a collection of my poems (set to music by the Australian composer David Chisholm), premiered in Melbourne in October 2011. It is dedicated to the submarine »Kursk« that sank in the Barents Sea, an incident Russians find painful to recall. The extent of the catastrophe is simply too large: the horrible deaths of the sailors. The president’s long silence on the subject, which then was capped by a cynical announcement, was sufficient to let everyone know that the subject was out of bounds. My work stopped appearing in print at this point. I simply no longer contacted the few publishing houses that had once been willing to publish my poetry. I didn’t want to put the editors in an uncomfortable position. The decision not to publish anymore in Russia came all by itself (my last collection of poems appeared there in 2008).
Fortunately, thanks to translators, my books are now published in the West. Every professional writer understands how many linguistic nuances and subtleties are lost in translation. Especially if it is poetry we are talking about. But on the other hand, were it not for the heroic work of translators, humankind would have to do without many of the masterpieces of world literature. I bow to them. Now I am needed by people in various countries. To publishers, readers, and to all those who help me be heard. And I am eternally thankful to fate for this rare opportunity.
Already last spring I started receiving the anonymous hate mail (I’ll spare you the stylistic flourishes). But the import was always the same; in a strident tone and in the imperative, I was »invited« to get out of the country. Of course, I quickly understood that this was an organized campaign whose purpose was to sow fear. Then the silent phone calls began, but the worst of all was when my mother picked up the phone. After Nemtsov’s assassination in February 2015 it was clear that the situation was serious. People were being sent to jail for one-man protests. Or even for wearing white ribbons – a mere symbol of protest.
A massive outflow of intellectuals began. Writers, thinkers, and anyone who was able to preserve their dignity, just like in the 1920s under the Bolsheviks, found themselves squeezed out of the country. Following a timeworn path, many of them left for Berlin. Russia completed a cycle: one more circle of Dante’s hell. My motherland became an impassable wall. And at that same moment I got an invitation from Frankfurt. A chance to live and work, thanks to some organizations that defend universal values, one of which is the right to free expression.*
The choice was difficult. I realized I was leaving my aging mother to deal with a situation that was growing ever more problematic. And thus depriving her of my protection. On the other hand, were I to turn down the offer, we would both perish. Because to write »for the desk drawer« is a death blow to art, and I can’t avoid telling the truth.
In September 2015 I left my country.
I’m writing these lines while sitting in the living room of my comfortable apartment, on the top floor of an old house. Amazingly, the building was not destroyed during the bombing in World War II. Above my head is a bas-relief of a woman’s head. I hope it brings good luck. Below me stretches an incredibly beautiful panorama of the city by night. Through the glass of the balcony doors I see the lemon-blue light at the top of a skyscraper, which is reflected in the flowing waters of the river; it’s as if I’m looking at a photograph of the aurora borealis in some magazine.
The city is particularly beautiful at night. My city, which does not belong to me.
Having lived here for a half year, I’ve found support from people for whom I’m a foreigner. But I haven’t received a single call from the large Russian diaspora. No one came to my readings at the Frankfurt Book Fair. There were Germans who are learning Russian, and readers who asked for my autograph despite not knowing any language other than German. But there were no Russians. Typical. A chance acquaintance who comes from my homeland (I’ll leave out her name) advised me to stay as far away as possible »from them.«
»Why?« I asked.
»They’re pining for the USSR and they don’t like liberals.«
In March, my first book of prose will be published by Akademie Schloss Solitude. A collection of short pieces. Greenland. Greenland – not a place, not a geographical point on the world map, but a freezing soul.
With every passing day in my Fatherland things get blacker. It’s absurd. They’ve reached a point of no return. Alas, I do not see any future for Russia. It’s horrible to think that the door to my beautiful house might be forced open one day by the foot of a barbarian. A man wearing fatigues. Solitude is a difficult test. Not everyone can stand to live with it to the very end. Yearning for home, for a piece of sky above your head, for a clear star in a winter night. For a heart beating in time with yours, hundreds of miles away. But you know it’s there and that knowledge gives you the strength to carry on. We are alive as long as those we love are alive. And as for the Fatherland, it will always be with you. In the language you write in.
* I’m speaking here about some international organizations including ICORN, City Council, Frankfurt Book Fair, Litprom, which find refuge for writers, journalists, and artists in the broadest sense of the term, who are persecuted in their home countries for their public statements.
Translated by Andrew Wachtel