Tuesday, January 3, 2017


The Mating Dance of the Blue-Footed Booby

                  Cathedral of the Ascension of the Lord, Kolomenskoe (Moscow), 1532

U.R. Bowie

RUSSIAN DIARY, NOV. 6-20, 2016

Nov. 5-6: On the Way There

Made a big decision late in 2016; decided to do something entirely different, go back to Russia with the Patch Adams Clown Tour, which amounts to a fortnight in the country (one week in Moscow, one week in St. Petersburg), entertaining children in hospitals and orphanages, as well as a few visits to homeless adults and a lot of madcap clowning on the streets. This year the group consisted of thirty clowns, from a variety of Western countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, and the U.S.A., as well as several Russian clowns who joined us in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was the only one in the original group of thirty who spoke Russian.

I left Jacksonville for Kennedy Airport in NY, dressed in the air-conditioned palm-frond hat that would be part of my clown costume in performance. People were looking at me, looking, probably thinking, “What the…” A few of them commented, “Oh, I like your hat. . . . oh, did you make it yourself?” As for me, the hat was my way of adopting the visage of a clown, making myself look ridiculous (that’s what clowns deliberately do). I felt ridiculous as well, and for the whole two weeks of clownery in Russia, I never got completely over that feeling.

On the long enervating Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow I experienced a constant feeling of being superannuated, as if the world had passed me by. My first trip into the Soviet Union was 1972, forty-four years ago. In my capacity as professor of Russian, I had returned many times over the years, had even spent an entire year in the country as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching in the city of Great Novgorod. But even that was sixteen years back into the past, and in returning now, I was still operating, to a large extent, by old rules. While I was aging, staying mostly away from Russia since the turn of the millennium, new rules had emerged, and a new generation had caught up with me, passed me.

The Aeroflot flight was now fully a Western-style flight, complete with the sort of excess badinage that Soviet Russians had no tolerance for: the welcome abroad, the blather about the benefits of flying Aeroflot, and more. In front of each passenger was a complete home-entertainment system, which enabled one to watch countless things on a screen. The Russians knew how to operate this system; superannuated I did not. As I was to learn upon arrival in Moscow, the new Russian generation is as fully in thrall to computerized gadgetry as the whole rest of the world. Times have changed.

What better symbol of the spirit of Young Russia—and its congruence with the spirit of the capitalist West—than the “poverty chic jeans” (ripped in spots on the legs), worn by the young Russian woman who sat next to me on the plane? I was reminded of the times back in the nineties, when I was group leader for student study-tours in Russia. My female students, who went about wearing those ripped-up jeans, were the constant target of irate old ladies in kerchiefs, particularly when the jeans-wearers tried to enter churches or sites of patriotic importance. “They dress like that (complained the old ladies to me), and pretty soon they’ll have our young people doing it.” And exactly when it happened I don’t know, but now that “pretty soon” has arrived. At least while in Moscow and St. Petersburg this time, I saw no young men going around with their pants pulled down almost to their knees and their underwear showing. I suppose, however, that this American trend will eventually reach young Russians as well.

Nov. 6, Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow: Clowns Welcoming Clowns

Along with me on the Aeroflot flight were four other clowns in our group, including the leader, Patch Adams, 71, a man whose whole life has been devoted to making people laugh, to healing through humor, and to flashing the bare bottom to the prudes and frowners of the world. His first visit to Russia was way back in 1974, and now he takes clown tours all over the world. Patch wears his clown gear 24/7; he is never not a clown. He has long white hair, dyed blue on one side, pulled back in a ponytail, and a handlebar mustache. Wearing pink-framed spectacles and a big red nose, he goes about in multicolored garb, in oversized clown shoes, his clown bloomers pulled up to reveal long, spindly legs. He loves to dance on those spindlies.

Going through Russian customs has also changed radically from the way things used to be. I still recall the tension of Soviet days, when grim-faced young (always very young) customs officials took your Western passport and eyeballed you long and hard. Bags were almost always opened, and contraband (say, Playboy magazines) confiscated. Now the officials in the booths are polite, welcoming, and nobody checks anything, no bags are opened. We waltzed right on through. Afterward we were greeted by a committee of welcoming clowns, all members of our group who had flown in earlier, and all decked out in outrageous costumes. Tooting horns and sporting dead (artificial) fish, the clowns began dancing around, blowing up balloons. Russian bystanders, passengers, taxi and bus drivers, vendors looked on in amazement, clamping on their faces that old familiar Russian face-look. At least that hasn’t changed (I thought), the standard generic Russian look—compounded of equal parts morose, phlegmatic and disgusted.

Then Patch Adams took out and brandished a pair of supersized white underpants, labelled, “World’s Largest Underwear.” Four or five of the clowns climbed inside the supersized, and they went dancing around arm in arm, chanting, “We all go round in underwear, underwear, underwear.” Some of the clowns approached little children who were passing by, offering them balloons. Most of the children seemed bewildered and frightened by this unusual spectacle. They didn’t want to take the balloons. Eventually, some of the Russian audience lightened up, began taking pictures of the festivities with cell phones. But many seemed less than amused by this outburst of bizarre exuberance. I couldn’t help thinking about the age-old Russian distrust of skomoroshestvo, the wild clownery of the minstrels and gleemen of ancient Rus—always associated with pagan religions, with chaos and disorder, and censured, condemned, therefore, by the Russian Orthodox Church and the autocratic authorities. The Soviets as well, to put it mildly, were not fond of this kind of behavior.

Nov. 6: Consumer Capitalism

Way back in 1972, on my first visit to Moscow, the place impressed me as a huge, grim, colorless warehouse, mostly empty of products and barely functioning at all. Back in those days, and in the times of many subsequent visits to Russia, you always felt as if there were just too much Collectivist Socialism at work. The country was drowning in Socialism. But now, as I rode the clown van from Sheremetyevo back to our hotel, the Katerina City, passing scads of burger joints (Бергер Кинг, Корнер Бергер), fast food galore, passing one car dealership after another (Toyota, Mercedes, Audi, etc., etc.), passing reams of car washes, gigantic Western-style shopping malls, used car lots, everything under the grim, slate-gray skies of an early winter (snow all over the ground), I couldn’t help thinking that over the many years since I last spent time in Moscow—twenty years ago—the city had become mired in exactly the opposite problem: a surfeit of consumer capitalism. In the old days practically nobody drove a car, and all the cars on the roads were of Soviet manufacture. Now practically everybody drives a car, Western-made cars are available in abundance, but, as a result, the streets are clogged with traffic. No place is easily reached now by automobile; no place and at no time, except maybe in the middle of the night.

The Katerina City Hotel, in downtown Moscow, resembles in no way the kind of old Soviet hotels I stayed in for so many years. It is modern, efficient, the staff is polite, helpful, and they even smile at times—although despite years of effort to inoculate staff everywhere in the American smile, Russians still do not smile as much as Americans. The hotel, nonetheless (our home for a week in Moscow), is wonderful. The buffet breakfast, available to us every morning, would have been available nowhere in the Soviet Union or the Russia of the transition period (the nineties). The closest you could have found such a buffet back then was in Helsinki, Finland.

We arrive at the hotel in our van and are greeted in the lobby by scads of other clowns, who dance around and play the fool in their welcoming joy, yelling, “Greetings, Welcome, Namaste.” Among the thirty clowns in the group, six or eight are like me: newcomers to clownery. But at least five others are professional clowns, who spend most of their days every year being zany.

To top off the impression that Russia has adopted the conspicuous consumption and bad taste that originated in the U.S., I turn on the TV in the hotel room, and the first program I see is a take-off on the pablum/crap shown on American television. It’s called something like “Russia’s Got Talent,” with a meretricious girlie pop singer crooning out banality, and the judges then going delirious over her beauty and grace—spouting out long encomiums, reams of utterly insincere inanities. Yes. Welcome to Moscow, where nothing is the same any more, where—as everywhere else in the world—people are panting, gasping to embrace American crass stupidity.

I turn off the television and sit jetlagged and enervated, as I always am upon my arrival in this country. On a table by the couch there is a bottle of drinking water, Svjatoj istochnik (Sacred Spring). I sit and watch the ever-so-subtle vibrations of the water at the top of the bottle. There is something soothing about watching water in a bottle or glass as it silently ripples and shakes. As if there were some hidden tidal pull at work here, an artificial moon working its magic upon any liquid in any container, including the liquid that makes up 80% in the container that is human you.

Nov. 7: Sergiev Posad

I was elated to learn that our first day of clowning would take place not in Moscow proper, but in the monastery city of Sergiev Posad, located some fifty miles north of Moscow. Elated because I naturally assumed that we would drop in for a tour of the monastery after our performance at an orphanage for deaf, dumb and blind children. The St. Sergius-Trinity Lavra (Monastery), founded by the ascetic Sergius in the fourteenth century, has been a focus for Russian spirituality for six hundred years. No other spot in the country is more venerated in Russian culture. Forced to play a minor role in the history of the Soviet Union, when all religion was denigrated and forcibly oppressed, the Lavra regained its prominent place in Russian culture after the fall of the USSR. Nowadays it attracts pilgrims, people seeking a more spiritual life, others hoping for cures from dire maladies.

Much to my surprise, as our clown bus drove through the city of Sergiev Posad and passed the monastery on our left, no one in the bus even bothered to look at the complex of churches and bell towers. Utterly uninformed about anything in Russian culture, the clowns went on joking, jibing, playing the fool in the bus, while I tried to attract the attention of those sitting near me. “Look, look out the window to your left.” This was when I first fully realized what a fish out of water I was in this group. Not only the oldest clown (by far), I was also the only clown with any knowledge of, or interest in, Russian history and culture.

It was even more to my surprise, and chagrin, when I learned that there was not to be even a brief stopover at the Lavra after our performance in the orphanage. The clowns had another appointment for that afternoon and evening. Our bus was to proceed to the dacha/country home of Maria, the founder of a charity for orphans known as “Maria’s Children.” There would be a dinner at Maria’s, followed by a talent show, put on by the various individual clowns.

Reaching our destination, we left the bus and entered a huge, labyrinthine building, the children’s home for the deaf, dumb and blind. We divided up into groups of two-three each and went into small classrooms where the children were learning and playing. I paired off with Simon, an American from Topeka. Neither he nor I had ever tried clowning before; we both were novices. As it turned out, this first clowning experience set the tone for me, and probably for Simon as well. Both of us are low-key individuals, more introverts than extroverts, and our clowning was of the quiet type. Simon had a cowbell with him, while I carried a bag full of various gifts: writing pads, pens, crayons, a tiny flashlight, a rubber lizard.

There were five deaf and dumb boys in the first classroom, all sighted. The oldest, Kolya, had just turned six, and he already was learning sign language. The boys were happy to see us and eager to interact with us. Touching the children is important. I noticed this throughout the whole two-week clown tour: children love touching you and being touched. Here in Sergiev Posad they also loved playing with Simon’s beard and ringing his cowbell. The five boys colored with the crayons I brought. In addition to interacting with them, I spoke at some length with their teacher. She was concerned about the upcoming American election, worried about Clinton and Trump, neither of whom she liked. Unable to forget the past, the fact that today’s date was once the major Soviet holiday of the year (The Day of the Grand October Revolution), I said jokingly to the teacher, “С праздиком (Happy holiday),” but she replied, “Oh, we never think about that any more.”

We spent forty to forty-five minutes with these boys, who were much exited and entertained by our presence. At one point the teacher had them perform a little round dance for us. After we left this group Simon and I went into a different classroom. This time there were two girls, and three boys, all of whom were blind. Simon and I enjoyed getting down on the floor with the children. One little boy wanted to wrestle; I ended up flat on my back, with him crawling all over me. One little blonde girl, four or five years old, was extremely articulate. She would learn about your looks by using her hands to explore—her hands were her eyes. She found a little flashlight in my bag, started turning it on and off—talking all the time, asking questions—then she began directing the rays of the flashlight into her closed eyelids. Apparently she had some sensation of light.

My rubber lizard was a big hit with this second group of children, as it had been with the boys in the first room, who even began fighting over it. I hoped to keep it with me for future encounters with children, but one little girl latched onto it. I ended up leaving both the flashlight and the lizard. This first visit on the tour, at least for me, was perhaps the best visit of all. The children were so happy to have us there, and it was a joy to bring them pleasure.

Nov. 7: the Monastery

All day long I was still thinking antiquated thoughts. Today was once was the biggest holiday of the year in the Soviet Union, but now the Soviet Union was so far into the past that even Lenin was fast fading into total historical oblivion.

We had lunch in the cafeteria at the children’s home—the Russian staples: beef in gravy, mashed potatoes, buckwheat and black bread—and after that I made my decision. I would stay here in Sergiev Posad and visit the Lavra, rather than going on with the rest of the clowns to the evening dinner and talent show. On the way out of town the bus let me off at the monastery, and I stepped out into the brisk air. Snow and ice all over everything. The sky was of the slate-gray color that sets in sometime in the Russian fall and hangs on all winter. Stopping off briefly at a little church named after St. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, I made my way up the slope to the main entrance into the monastery grounds.

Crossing myself, as was everyone else, I walked through the huge arch at the entrance and entered the inner grounds. It was already four o’clock, and the visitors/pilgrims were sparse. I took a look at the lovely little steep-walled Church of the Holy Spirit (fifteenth century). Wanted to go inside, but its doors were locked. Then I moved on to the Trinity Cathedral, built in the 1420s. Inside there was a service in progress, with a choir of harmonizing voices. People were stepping up to the big sarcophagus containing the relics of St. Sergius, founder of the monastery (he died in 1392), crossing themselves, bowing, kissing the box in various spots, stepping away, bowing, crossing themselves. The Trinity cathedral also has iconic frescoes on its walls, done by Andrei Rublyov, the most famous icon painter in Russian history. Later, on a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I would stand before his most famous icon of all, Christ the Saviour, depicted as a very real living man.

I went into one other church, the monumental Dormition Cathedral, commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1559. By the time I emerged from that church it was already twilight—darkness comes early in the Russian fall and winter. I wandered around a bit more, enjoying the quietude, the peace of mind, then made my way back through the arch. Asking directions of a group of men who were smoking, I made my way up the hill to the train station. There was slush underfoot, snow had begun falling, and I was cursing myself for a decision I made that morning. Thinking that I would be largely inside all day, or on the bus, I had put on my running shoes instead of my winter boots.

Nov. 7: Women Working Behind Glass

As I approached the cashier’s box at the station, I had already begun laughing inwardly, because I was sure what would happen next. A lot has changed in this country, I was thinking, but the women selling tickets behind glass will always be the same. In Russia you constantly have to buy things by dealing with women who work glassed in; consequently, you cannot hear what they are saying. If you ask them to repeat themselves they are irritated, and then they begin yelling at you. I began by asking what a ticket to Moscow on the elektrichka (train run by electric wires overhead) cost.

She told me and I didn’t hear her. “Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t hear well.” Immediately indignant, she shouted out the price to me. I bought the ticket, but then asked her what platform the train was on. She didn’t want me asking that. She had better things to do than to tell me. Then I asked her how to get to the platform. Now, it would seem that all of these questions were legitimate—questions vital to the well being of the novice traveler. I had last been in the Sergiev Posad train station in 1983, so obviously I did not know my way around. But such questions in a Russian train station are not legitimate, and if you persist in asking them, the lady behind the glass will yell at you. She yelled. I suppose that this is the way glassed-in cashiers have operated for one thousand years of Russian history, and all the new Western ways that have recently penetrated the country—the service with courtesy and a smile that you run into (amazingly) everywhere—none of that counts for the glassed-in denizens of the cashier’s boxes.

Nov. 7: Russian Forbearance

 Back in Moscow after the fifty-mile ride on the elektrichka, I rode the metro to the Paveletskaja station, emerged onto the street. A young lady whom I had asked directions while riding the up escalator got out her cell phone, found a map, and sent me off in the direction of Shluzovaja naberezhnaja Street, where the Katerina City, my hotel, was located. Now, it was dark, the snow had turned to hard rain, which made for watery slush and puddles all over the sidewalks. Soon my running shoes were soaked through, and I began cursing in English as I sloshed along. With typical Russian forbearance people on the streets were stoically negotiating the sidewalks, doing their best to make their way through this mess. I was the only curser. Still not sure exactly where I was, I asked another man for directions, and he told me to watch for an underground crossing. It would bring me out on the other side to Shljuzovaja naberezhnaja. On I sloshed, still blaspheming, for several more blocks, and then I suddenly noticed on my left a little café called Оки Доки (Okie Dokie). That’s a sign from above, I thought. Everything’s bound to be okay now, and it was. Right in the shadow of the Okie Dokie Café I found the underground crossing and moseyed/sloshed on back to the Katerina City. Went up to the clerk in the lobby and told him, “Слякоть в Сергиев Посаде нормальная слякоть, но в Москве у вас самая прогрессивная слякоть в мире (The slush in Sergiev Posad is just ordinary slush, but Moscow has the most progressive slush on earth).”

Nov. 8: Worst-Case Scenarios

Our job as clowns involves not only being crawled upon by relatively happy, normal children. It also involves visiting children who are in terrible shape. Today we were in wards full of such children. In places like this, the zaniness of clownery simply does not work, and the clowns have to come up with other things to do. We entered a ward full of children in wheelchairs, all of them severely retarded. We tried touching them, singing to them. There was one little girl of four, Tanechka, with a bald spot on the back of her head, with vacant eyes. I was rubbing her back, singing a Russian song, when she suddenly went into a rage, began shrieking, slapping herself hard on the head, then biting into her own wrist. After being in this hospital for an hour we left, and I, for one, felt that I had not done anybody any good. But who knows? When the children cannot respond you can never be sure how much, or how little, good you have done them.

Nov. 9. Gob-Smacked

Back in the hotel, I was still tormented by insomnia, the usual result of the horrible jet-lag that always gets me in the first few days of my stay in Russia. Could not get to sleep all night, and, if that were not bad enough, I put on the TV and learned the results of the American election back home. As the reporter on the German English-language network DW put it: people all over the world have been “gob-smacked” (British English for “punched in the kisser”). So, as it turns out, the glorious American people, ever anti-intellectual—perpetually insisting on their God-given right to be mindless—have elected as their president a man who is not only immoral, but is proud of his immorality and adverse to thinking as well, a boor and a demagogue, a man utterly unqualified for the job. I can think of nothing better to do than to go down for breakfast wearing the rubber Trump mask that I bought in a Halloween shop and brought along with me.

Nov. 9: The Ascension of the Lord Cathedral

Today I abandoned my fellow clowns altogether, remaining in the hotel to sleep all morning, from nine to two. After that I went out to visit one of my favorite places in Moscow, the Kolomenskoe Architectural Complex, built on high ground overlooking the Moscow River. I haven’t been here in sixteen years, and meanwhile they have reconstructed the wooden palace of seventeenth century Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, but not at its original site. Today it’s too late for me to visit the new palace, but, then again, what I have come for is available at its original site, and still standing in all its white-stoned glory.

This is the Храм Вознесения Господня (Ascension of the Lord Cathedral, 1532), built, so the legend goes, by Tsar Vasily III, to commemorate the birth of his son and heir, Ivan—who would go on one day to be The Terrible. This temple is the oldest “hipped-roof-type” (also called tent-roofed) cathedral in the country. At 62 meters in height, for years it was the tallest structure in all of Ancient Rus. The sheer height of it is astounding, and the name Ascension is so appropriate: its white stone walls ascend. You stand below looking up at its sheer architectural power, and you feel like ascending yourself, soaring hand in hand with Christ up past all the kokoshniki (architectural embellishments in the style of the Russian peasant woman’s headdress) and onto the ever-narrowing tip of the thing and then BIF, disappearing (still holding the hand of Jesus) into the clouds. Слава Тебе, Господи, Слава Тебе, Богомати, I’ve finally got done with doing this business they call Life in Flesh; now I can finally soar up on high, where I can let go and have myself a nice, long rest.

Darkness was coming on, and no one but me was left standing alongside the railing of the slope that led down to the Moscow River. Just me and Jesus, standing looking up at the Ascension Church, enjoying being there with that temple, communing with Russian culture—with which I have communed for over fifty years now—contemplating the Ascension.

Nov. 10: Palliative Care

Today we visited the palliative ward of the Izmailov Children’s Polyclinic, one of the best Russian hospitals I’ve ever been in—very clean, good equipment, reeking in efficiency. But then, all of the hospitals and orphanages we visited in the two weeks of the Patch Adams Clown Tour were way above average. I know this because—while working as a volunteer for the Red Cross in the nineties—I have been in many such institutions, both in Russia and in Central Asia. Some of them are gruesomely bad, dirty, with broken windows. Not sure whether the Western organizers of the Patch Adams Tours are aware of this, but the renowned Patch Adams is shown only the very best hospitals and orphanages.

Palliative care (same word used in Russian, паллиативный), is care intended to palliate, mitigate, alleviate pain. But the word “palliation” has now taken on the meaning of care of the dying. In visiting here we were dealing with dying children. What to do for them? That is the question. Another: does anything we do for them really help? Hard to tell.

Working in tandem today with Guillaume (Giyomshchik), a big-eyed professional clown from Montreal who has a handlebar mustache and a long, disheveled goatee, I approached the bed of a girl called Eugenia. According to the chart on the headboard she was eleven years old, but she looked more like five. Matchsticks for legs and arms, with skin chalky white, continuously kicking side to side with one Auschwitz spindle leg, she lay with wandering eyes. Using her pet name, Zhenechka, we improvised a song that consisted largely of that name plus various endearments. After getting Giyomshchik into the rhythm of the thing (“Zhenechka, slavnen’ka, Zhenechka”), I let him carry on with the melody while I switched to harmony. Did the dying Zhenechka, she of the one spasmodic leg, hear the song? Who knows?

Throughout the day I was developing a bronchial cough; I could feel an old chronic friend coming on: bronchitis. Many times over the course of the years, on my visits to Russia, the strain of the jetlag and the lack of sleep has brought on this ailment. I was hoping this year to avoid that same old same old, but it was not to be. At any rate, I was thinking in the palliative ward, let’s hope that I can spread a helpful virulent germ around here today, thereby hastening the departure of sufferers like Zhenechka for the next world.

Nov. 11-12 : Bronchitis

Badly sick for a couple of days. Hung out mostly at the hotel, trying to get better. I missed the clowning at a homeless center, which I would have liked to go to, as it was the only visit in the whole tour to an institution for adults. But knowing I had only two weeks in the country, I rebelled against spending most of the trip in bed. Slept all morning, then took a jaunt down to the Novodevichy Nunnery to visit “Russia’s Preeminent Necropolis” (headline in Moscow Times). Hadn’t been here for many years. The graveyard is notable for its spectacular sculptural monuments. Today many of them were covered in snow, which makes for interesting effects on the tombstones.

Came upon the renowned humorist, longtime director of the Moscow Circus, Yury Nikulin, who (in the sculpture) sits there on his backside, now perpetually holding a lit (supposedly) cigarette but never taking a drag. The dog at his feet was completely buried under the snow, but someone had kindly dug him out.

It was very cold and I was sick, so I gave up searching for the many famous Russian writers whose works I taught for thirty years in an American university. I had seen them anyway—the graves and monuments of Bulgakov, Gogol, Chekhov, Mayakovsky, many others—on previous visits here. I did find the grave of the great singer Lidia Ruslanova, and one of her songs, which I know by heart, “На улице дождик—Rain Outside”—kept running through my head as I stood there.

Today I missed the grand gala ball and auction for the charitable organization Maria’s Children.

Nov. 13: On to St. Petersburg

The Bunin Allée (Avenue with Trees)

The nicest thing, perhaps, that I discovered during my stay in Moscow was the existence of a new metro station, called “Бунинская аллея (The Bunin Allée),” which is way far southwest of the city, the last stop on the line. I’m the only clown who would take note of such a station, named after the arbors and tree-lined boulevards (linden-lined, birch-lined) in the works of the writer Ivan Bunin, but, then again, I’m the only clown who wrote, years ago, a Ph.D. dissertation on Bunin at Vanderbilt, and then who spent thirty years translating his literary works—published, finally, in 2006, by Northwestern University under the title Night of Denial.

Nov. 13: Musings and Cogitations While on the Bullet Train to Petersburg

Since the fall of the Soviet Union this country has become so much more civilized. I never thought I’d see the day when Russians on the streets were not yelling constantly at one another, playing the age-old Russian game of yell. Now the yelling women behind glass are the last of a dying breed. Or the day when drivers stopped to let pedestrians cross. The old (unwritten) rules stipulated that drivers—intent on claiming their right to the highway—would always speed up when they saw pedestrians. “Get out of my way; I own this road!” Now new laws have the drivers in rein. Big fines. They stop and let you cross. Civilization.

I last rode a train between Moscow and St. Petersburg twenty years ago. In those days things were much the same as in Soviet times. The train took eight hours for the trip. You usually went overnight and slept the journey away in sleeper compartments for four. The conductor would bring you tea. Not a bad experience, but the trains were slow, and the toilets consisted of a drafty compartment, stinking horribly, with a hole in the floor.

Now you ride a chic bullet train, clean and comfortable, with civilized toilets, and you make the trip in three-four hours. In the old times nothing was ever compatible with Western standards, but riding this train today, you could as easily be riding in France or Spain. Amazing, the progress of civilization.

Yet, as I sit on the train, looking out at the snowy countryside, I’m musing over the failure of Homo sapiens ever to make much progress. All the “going forward” that we talk about so incessantly never really gets that far forward. Why such gloomy thoughts? Because back in the States, with the election of Trump, we’re into a big New Era, a chance for Real Change, which Change could be going more backward than forward, which Change could even be Dangerous. Would that there were a way to stop the mutual back and forth of hatred that rules the U.S.A. One half of the country grits its teeth and shakes its fist at the other half, and that other half grits its teeth back and shakes its fist back. How did we get into this grievous situation? Don’t exactly know. What’s to be done about it? Don’t know that either, but I do know that real progress in terms of how the human psyche operates, real progress in human endeavors—notwithstanding the presence of wonderful new fast bullet trains—is the thing that never happens.

I’m nursing my bronchitis with vodka, the brand called “Air” [Воздух (пьешь как дышишь)], aware that vodka will not palliate my dark thoughts about the human race, and taking note of the warning on the bottle: “Чрезмерное употребление алкоголя вредит вашему здоровью (Excessive use of alcohol ruins your health).”

Nov. 14: St. Petersburg

Walking Tour

Upon arrival last evening at our hotel (The Rachmaninov, on Kazanskaja Street), I led five other clowns on a brief walking tour of my favorite city. We trekked through the snow, passing first the Kazan Cathedral, right next to our hotel. I pointed out the Saviour on the Blood Church, just down the way along Griboedov Canal. Then we walked Nevsky Prospekt all the way to the Palace Square and Hermitage Museum. To the left from there we went scrunching along the pathways packed down with snow, past the Admiralty Building, on to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, all scaffolded up at the top. From there we took a right turn and proceeded to The Bronze Horseman, the most famous statue in all of Russia: Peter the Great mounted on his horse, right arm stretched forward, squinting to make out the horizon, since one eye (the left) was all snowed over.


Today we visited two different hospitals, first the one named after its founder, the Austrian doctor, Carl Gottlieb Rauchfuss, second a children’s hospital specializing in ambulatory problems and prostheses. At times on our visits I just sit back and watch the other clowns in action. Watch the children having fun. So many of these clowns are so good at what they do; you can’t help admiring them.

Maybe the highlight of my whole trip was something that occurred in the first hospital today. Here the rooms and corridors seemed to be teeming with very active, lively children. In the ward I first entered three small children were running and jumping, screaming and laughing at the antics of the clowns, while sitting alone on her bed, a girl of ten or eleven, brown-haired, very serious, wearing glasses, concentrated on a book she was reading. Her name was Katya.
The little children squealed, ran, jumped, while Katya sat, and the disconcerted expression on her face said, “Leave me out of the festivities; I want no part of this.” Several clowns approached her, in an attempt to get her involved, but she ignored them, kept her eyes on the book. She seemed to be thinking, “If only they’d finish their foolishness and leave me in peace.”
Eventually a nurse came in, had Katya on her back in the bed, administering to her in some way. Clearly uncomfortable with the procedure, the girl lay with tears in her eyes, while her book was left at the foot of the bed. It was “Stories from the Bible.” What to do? This. I walked up to Katya on her back, looked down at her and began to sing. It was what they call духовная песня (a spiritual song/prayer), sung by peasant women in Russian villages of the nineteenth century.

First verse: Миру заступница, Мати Всепетая, я пред Тобою с мольбой
(Intercessor for all the world, All-Hallowed Mother of God, I stand before Thee with a plea)

Second verse: Бедная грешница, мраком одетая, Ты Благодатю покрой
(Poor sinner that I am, all wrapped up in darkness, cover me, Mother, in Thy Bright Grace)

Third verse: Трудная жизнь, минуты страдания, Ты мне, молюсь, помоги
(Hard, hard life, moments of dire suffering, help me, O Mother, I pray)

She lay on her back, looking up with utter concentration, listening to the consolation of the song, listening. We never spoke a word together, but in leaving Katya, I hoped I had left her with a spark of succor, a way through whatever dark paths in her soul that she still had to walk.

Nov. 15: Dasha, Roma and Tima, Trump

We visited two children’s hospitals today, both great fun. One was the Institute for the Treatment of Bone Tuberculosis. Here Courtney (an Australian clown) and I spent time talking to a beautiful thirteen-year-old girl named Dasha, who was not ambulatory. She had a lovely temperament and a great smile, and she did her best to speak English. At times I helped her translate things she wanted to say for Courtney from the Russian. I left her with a necklace made by Native Americans, with two feathers hanging down at the bottom.

The Trump mask was a big hit here, more than anywhere else. Almost all the nurses and mothers wanted their picture taken with Trump. By now I had a performance routine down. I went around speaking out the mouth of the mask in Russian, asking somebody to help me find my pal Putin. I repeated the same words over and over. “Меня зовут Трамп. Я шут гороховый. Я первый шут гороховый Президент в истории Америки (My name is Trump. I’m a jackass-clown. I’m the first jackass-clown President in American history).” After that I sang “America the Beautiful,” beginning in English, but finishing off the last verse in Russian.

Made friends in the morning with a six-year-old boy named Roman (Roma). Gave him a calendar for 2017 consisting entirely of cats. He was thrilled. He told me, “My favorite animal is the cat.” Also gave him a writing pad and pen. His specialty in drawing was the tank. He drew me a picture of a tank, very carefully wrote out his name at the bottom, Рома, and presented it to me as a gift.

The highlight of the afternoon was three-year-old Timofey (Timothy). As clowns in multicolored outfits gamboled about, Timmy sat with his mother, dead serious, wide-eyed, muttering. “What’s that he’s saying?” I asked, and the mother, laughing, replied, “He’s saying Паук-человек (Spiderman).” So it turned out, Timmy was obsessed with the superpowers of the man-spider, and he was convinced that somewhere amidst this cornucopia of bright clownery his hero would appear.

Nov. 17: The Catherine Palace in Pushkin

Today we rode our bus out of town, to the city of Pushkin. There we visited the magnificent Catherine Palace, which I had been to many times, but never like this. The clowns capered and romped about in the magnificent parade rooms, danced amidst the splendor. I got to see the wonderful Amber Room again, and then we were off to the Psycho-neurological Orphanage No. 4. All the children here were severely retarded. Even the most experienced clowns are sometimes at a loss in a situation like this. The usual tricks—dancing about, blowing up balloons, tooting horns, singing songs—if they work at all, only work to a limited degree. You try to make the best of a sad situation.

Nov. 18: Winding Down

Our last visit to a children’s hospital this morning. I talked for a while with two six-year-old twin brothers, Misha and Matvej (Mikey and Matt). Passed out a lot more presents (calendars, crayons, writing pads, even toy cigarettes). One last go for the Trump mask, and once again it was received with hoots of joy. Everyone was posing for pictures with Trump. As for the children, the younger ones didn’t know who Trump was, but they enjoyed the mask. Mikey and Matt started playing run out of a ward shrieking, then run down the corridors pursued by the ogre in the mask. Great fun. Before leaving this hospital I gave away most of my clown props, including the palm-frond hat and the fake eyeglasses that I had worn most of the time. Assuming that it might be useful some time in the next four years, I kept the Trump mask.

Summing Up

There were times during this trip, especially during the worst bronchitis, that I wondered what I was doing here. Especially since at my age I was like grandfather to the group. But all in all, it was a wonderful experience. The clowns were so devoted to what they were doing, and such good people, it was a real privilege to be around them. Some of them were so refined in their performances that I sometimes just sat with the children and watched the entertainment.

I spoke with a lot of Russians all over about the American political scene. Didn’t meet a single Russian who liked Hillary Clinton; most of them hated her. But that is understandable, given that her husband as President was the first to perpetuate the Cold War by pushing NATO up to the borders of Russia, and given that Hillary followed the same anti-Russian “containment” policies as Secretary of State under Obama. As for Trump, the Russians appreciated his iconoclasm and showmanship, but they weren’t really sure what to make of him. But then, nobody else can figure out Trump’s behavior either, including Trump himself.

The best thing of all about this trip was the privilege of being able to interact with Russian children, with their mothers, with the nurses and doctors in the places we visited. In one hospital a woman there with her son, just checking in, said to me, “But you’re from America; they hate Russians in America, don’t they?” Well no, not all of us, at any rate. And if we could bring the haters along with us on this tour, could take them to the hospitals to see the children, the hatred would soon fade from their souls.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


NOTE: This article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, July 19, 2008

Face-Saving Fakery, Play Acting and Make
Believe in Russian History and Culture

(1) The Tatar Yoke and the Chechen Wars

"We play, we die: ig-rhyme, umi-rhyme."
[Vladimir Nabokov in his short story, "'That in
Aleppo Once.'"--punning on the Russian verbs,
igraem ("we play") and umiraem ("we die")]

(1) Fakery in Terms of Conquering and Being
Conquered: (a) Russia and the Tatar Yoke (b)
Tolstoy Looks at War against the Chechens in the 1850s


In Homo Ludens (Man the Player), his remarkable
book about how nearly all human institutions may
be linked to the concept of play, the great Dutch
historian Huizinga writes: "More and more doubts
arise as to whether our occupations are pursued
in play or in earnest, and with the doubts comes
the uneasy feeling of hypocrisy, as though the
only thing we can be certain of is make-believe."
In another passage he mentions how the sophists
"hint at the perpetual ambiguity of every
judgement made by the human mind," and he
reluctantly tiptoes up to the "deep question of
how far the process of reasoning is itself marked by play-rules. . ."[1]

Read in the context of Russian history and
culture, both ancient and contemporary,
Huizinga's book has a particular resonance.


The great émigré scholar George Fedotov has
stated that "The Mongol conquest is the most
fateful catastrophe suffered by Russia during her
entire history." He adds that "The blow to
national pride was deep and ineradicable." [2]
The Golden Horde (commonly known as the Mongols
or Tatars) descendents of the great warlord
Chingis Khan (who died in 1227), fell upon the
Russian lands in force, devastating Kievan Rus in
the campaigns of 1237-1240 A.D. Very soon the
Mongols had gained control over almost all of
what was then Russia, plus much more (China and
Persia, for example). When Tatar raiding parties
first appeared in 1223, the Russians had no idea
who they were, and they "identified them with the
peoples of Gog and Magog, whose escape from
behind the mountains where Alexander the Great
had locked them up signaled the apocalypse."[3]

The Tatars forced Russia to pay tribute (in
money, slaves, military recruits) for about two
and one half centuries (the usually accepted time
frame of the "Tatar Yoke" is 1240-1480 AD). This
is roughly the same number of years that comprise
the entire history of the United States of
America. Following the cue of early Russian
scribes (writers of the ancient chronicles),
Russian historians have most frequently
emphasized the brutality of the invaders and
glorified the Russians who resisted them. Little
or nothing is said, however, about specific
incidents of humiliation. Where do we read about
Russians being forced to get down on their knees
when a Tatar war party rode into town? Where do
we hear tales of rape and rapine? Where do we
find detailed descriptions of Russian princes
kowtowing to the Tatars? Practically nowhere,
since the Tatars did not write these things down
and the Russians made monumental efforts to
pretend they had not happened. When instances of
Russian collaboration with the Tatar conquerors
are too blatant to miss, the historians (again
following the example of the scribes), say
nothing about them. Halperin calls this "the ideology of silence."

"Among historians of Russia, neglect of the
period of Mongol domination has been the rule
rather than the exception. As Michael Cherniavsky
aptly observed, 'There seems to have prevailed a
vague desire to get rid of, to bypass, the whole
question as quickly as possible'" (Halperin
preface, p. vii). True, the Russian émigré
Eurasianist movement of the 1920s and 1930s
attempted a new approach. The Eurasianists took a
novel look at the years of the Mongol Yoke and
decided that Tatar culture, as well as Turkic and
Muslim culture, had had a tremendous impact on
Russia. The neo-Eurasianists of recent years
propagate the belief that the future of Russia
lies in the East, in economic and political
alliances with China, India, Iran, and the
countries of Central Asia, but Eurasianist views,
largely, have not abrogated the traditional
denigration of the Mongols or the widely-accepted
denial of their importance in Russian history.[4]

The major leitmotif of Charles Halperin's whole
book is the "ideology of silence" (see also p. 5,
8, 19-20, 61-62, 127, 129). The history of the
medieval Russian chroniclers is a history of
prevarication. Rather than acknowledge certain
truths that are sometimes obvious, at other times
not totally verifiable, but at least probable,
the scribes fabricated a number of myths about
Russia and the Golden Horde. These myths were
then perpetuated by Russian historians and
cultural figures, who often continue perpetuating
them right up to the present day, while adding new myths of their own:

(1) Russian resistance saved Europe from the
Tatars. If Russia had given in to Tartar
occupation, it would have been only one more step
for the Tartars to advance into Western Europe.

Rebuttal: The Mongol Horde never occupied Russia
because it had no good reason to do so. "The
institutions which permitted prolonged occupation
of China, Persia, and Central Asia would hardly
have been inadequate to govern Russia. The fact
is that Russia remained unoccupied because it had
little to offer the Mongols. It was neither part
of the steppe nor located on profitable trade
routes. Commerce in and through Russia may have
been important for the Russians but was minor
compared to the trade along the caravan routes
east and south of Sarai."[5] The advance of Khan
Batu, grandson of Chingis Khan, through Eastern
Europe may have been halted by an "accident of
history," the death of Great Khan Ugedei. The
Mongol leaders suspended their military campaign,
so this story goes, in order to attend a council
that would elect his successor (Halperin, p. 47).

(2) Prince Dmitry Donskoi's[6] great victory
over the Tatars at Kulikovo in 1380 led to a
recrudescence of Russian power and precipitated
the dissipation of the Golden Horde.

Rebuttal: Prince Dmitry's victory is highly
significant, since it marked the first time in
140 years that Russians had defeated a Tatar army
and it "shattered the legend of the military
invincibility of the Mongols."[7] But the
importance of the victory has been exaggerated,
and the average Russian is unaware of the
complexities surrounding this event. On the
famous Monument to a Thousand Years of Russian
History in Great Novgorod, for example, Donskoi
is depicted trampling on a vanquished Tatar, who
is lying on the ground, looking up beseechingly
at the Russian prince.[8] This visual image
amounts to a vast oversimplification of the
Kulikovo event and its importance in history; its
American equivalent would be something like the
tale of how young George Washington cut down a
cherry tree and then said, "I cannot lie; I did
it." It is an image of legend, rather than of historical fact.

In reality, the Russian princes were making
repeated alliances with the Tatars against their
fellow Russian princes throughout the whole
period of the Tatar Yoke. For a number of years
Moscow engaged in squabbles with Tver', which had
allied itself with Tatar Khan Mamai. Under
pressure from Moscow, Tver' was forced to submit
to a humiliating treaty in 1375, and when Prince
Dmitry advanced against the Tatars in 1380,
Tverian troops were to join his army (under the
terms of the treaty), but they failed to show up.
Dmitry's victory turned out, furthermore, to be
pyrrhic, since the Russians suffered great losses
at Kulikovo and could not mobilize another army
to continue fighting Mamai, who prepared for
another campaign against Russia. Meanwhile, in
1382, "with the connivance, in part coerced, of
the princes of Tver', Riazan, and Nizhnij
Novgorod," a different Tatar khan, Tokhtamysh
attacked Moscow, razed the city and re-instituted
the forced payment of tribute to the Tatars.

The man who really may have put the final quietus
on Mongol domination of the Russian lands was,
oddly enough, the great Central Asian warlord
Tamerlane (a.k.a. Temir Aksak or Timur the Lame).
In order to secure his rear from the threat of
Tamerlane, Tokhtamysh made concessions to the
Russians. Then, in 1395, Tamerlane himself
advanced into Russia with a huge contingent of
troops. More myths were concocted later to
explain why he did not sack Moscow (and, again,
how Russian resistance saved Western Europe). So
the new legend goes, Moscow paraded around the
sacred image of the Vladimir Mother of God in an
attempt to stop Tamerlane, whose troops had taken
the southern city of Yelets. The warlord was
encamped outside town, sleeping, when "The Queen
of Heaven appeared unto him, surrounded by a host
of warriors, and ordered him to abandon forthwith
the realm of Rus. Immediately, he retreated,
leaving Russia and Europe in peace. On the spot
of his dream the Russians built a church named
after the icon of the Blessed Yelets Mother of
God. Copies of this icon, painted as the image of
the Vladimir God Mother, hands raised in
supplication, abound in Yelets to this day."[9]

(3) Led by the heroic Russian princes, the
Russian people resisted the Tatar Yoke and
eventually drove the Mongols out of Russia. Great
Novgorod, never sacked by the Mongols, was a kind
of hero city, and Prince Aleksandr Nevsky
(1220-1263), like Donskoi, is one of the greatest heroes of Russian history.

Rebuttal: As mentioned above, the aristocracy in
charge of Russian principalities often made
alliances with the Tatars against other
principalities. As is so often the case in
Russian history, Russians had trouble uniting in
a common cause. This, of course, is not so
surprising, in that, during the many centuries
preceding the consolidation of Moscow's power,
there was no centralized "Russia" in the sense
that there was later. But Russia under the Tatar
Yoke, nonetheless, sometimes has an eerie
congruency with the Russia of today. Those in
power (the leaders of the principalities and the
church back then; today the "new oligarchs,"
power brokers from the old KGB, and others in
high bureaucratic positions) fight each other for
influence, making and breaking alliances if need be.

As for Novgorod, often declared to be the most
significant free city remaining in Russian during
the years of the Tatar Yoke, it kept its
independence by dealing diplomatically with the
Tatars. Like the rest of Russia "Great Lord
Novgorod" (Gospodin Velikij Novograd) paid
tribute to the Mongol Horde, and the city
flourished because the Mongols allowed it special
trading privileges (Halperin, p. 35, 80).
Aleksandr Nevsky, who is prominently depicted on
the Thousand Year Monument, and whose statue
stands proudly in Novgorod today, on the other
side of the Volkhov River, is not entirely the
hero he is made out to be. Nevsky certainly
deserves hero status for his victories over the
Swedes in 1240 and the Livonian Knights two years
later. But in dealing with the Tatars, Nevsky was
a pragmatist. "His collaboration with the Tatars
has been an embarrassment to patriotic
historiographers ever since" (Halperin, p. 49-50,
67; see also Rossija v bronze, p. 148-49). In The
Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, the first
mention of the Tatars (A.D. 1257) depicts them
allied with Aleksandr, who punished rebellious
Novgorodians (among them was his son Vasily): "He
cut off the noses of some, and took out the eyes
of others, of those who had led Vasily to
evil."[10] Modern-day patriots, however, need not
be so assiduous in concealing Nevsky's
conciliatory moves. After all, he was forced to
deal with enemies on both the western and eastern
borders of the Russian lands, and he deserves the
glory that he achieved under almost impossible
circumstances. The discomfort at acknowledging
Nevsky's dealings with the Tatars is just one
more affirmation of the stain on the Russian
psyche that still remains, more than five hundred
years after the end of the Mongol Yoke.

(4) Russia "learned wickedness" from the
Tatars, or, as Harrison Salisbury once put it,
modern-day Russia "still struggles against the
legacy of backwardness, ignorance, servility,
submissiveness, deceit, cruelty, oppression and
lies imposed by the terrible Mongols" (Salisbury cited in Halperin, p. 96-97).

Rebuttal: This argument is so specious that it
hardly deserves a rebuttal. Certainly there is
enough wickedness, cruelty, backwardness, etc. in
the human soul (see the history of the human race
from time out of mind) that we can't blame the
Tatars for imposing such traits on Russians.

(5) The Tatars are at fault for Russia's having "missed the Renaissance."

Rebuttal: "Russia had never been part of the
Roman Empire and was neither Catholic nor within
the sphere of medieval Latinity. . . Russian
intellectuals could hardly have participated in
the revival of a classical Latin heritage that
was not their own. The Renaissance was
intrinsically a phenomenon of the Latin West"
(Halperin, p. 122). Furthermore, Russia had its
own Renaissance of sorts, and not one easily
dismissed as creatively inferior. Its sources
were the culture of Byzantium, plus that of the
Orthodox Slavs of the South and Kievan Rus. The
period inclusive of this efflorescence of Russian
spirituality and creativity is, roughly, the
thirteenth through the fifteen centuries (much of
this time periodic coincided with the years of
Mongol domination). Fedotov (II, 344) has called
the fifteenth century the "golden age of Russian
sanctity or spiritual life" and also "the golden
age of Russian art," but he also is careful to
distinguish the Russian spirit of innovation from
that of the West, whose culture the Russians
refused to appropriate. There was no doctrinal
reason for not translating into Slavonic certain
books of secular content. Constantinople, capital
of the Byzantine Empire until 1453, had libraries
rich with secular literature, but these were not
translated. Therefore, there was "a tragic lack
in ancient Russian culture, a complete absence of
rational scientific thought, even in the
theological field. . . full-fledged scientific
investigation in Russia started only in the
nineteenth century" (Fedotov, II, 380).


As Lev Tolstoy is so fond of emphasizing in his
literary works describing politics and warfare,
the people involved often act for reasons not
entirely clear to them, and the consequences of
their actions are unpredictable. In his last
great work of fiction, "Hadji Murad" (published
posthumously, in 1912), Tolstoy presents the
subjugation of the Chechens in the Caucasus
(1850s) as a brutal game of let's pretend. The
renowned Chechen warlord and title character is
pretending to join the Russians, to fight against
his enemy Shamil, who holds his family hostage.
Meanwhile, the Russians are pretending to believe
that Hadji Murad really intends to help them,
while not for a moment really believing.

In Chapter Seventeen, the handsome officer Butler
is shown enjoying the exhilaration of warfare,
poeticizing it, playing this game to the hilt,
while averting his eyes from the Russian dead and
wounded. In the next chapter the Chechen village
just ravaged by Butler's men is depicted, and the
sheer horror of war is presented in contrast to
Butler's romantic fantasies. Meanwhile, the
Chechen warriors, who know no other rules by
which to live except the rules of the blood feud,
are often depicted exulting in the sheer joy of
battle, while praising Allah. The game, and the
rules by which it is played, are more important than the consequences.[11]

As he so often does in War and Peace, Tolstoy in
"Hadji Murad" debunks the way myths about the
battlefield quickly replace somber realities. In
Chapter Five the Russian officers engage in an
animated conversation about the recent death of
General Slepstov. In speaking of the general, no
one considers the grim fact of his demise and his
"return to the great source of life from which he
came." Rather they all imagine his gallantry in
death, the actions of a "dashing officer, falling
upon the mountaineers saber in hand and desperately hacking away at them.

"This, despite a reality that everyone. . . knew
and could not help knowing: that throughout the
war in the Caucasus, and never, nowhere in any
other war did there occur that hacking with the
swords of hand-to-hand combat, the scene that
people always conjure up and describe (and that
if such hand-to-hand combat with swords and
bayonets ever actually takes place, then the only
soldiers being hacked and stabbed are the ones running away). . ."[12]

The Russian officers, as Tolstoy makes clear,
hide behind such mythmaking in order to avoid
facing the possibility of their own death. The
Chechens, on the other hand, seem not to fear
death at all, taking refuge (exactly in the same
spirit of modern jihadists) in the grandiose
legends of the Islamic religion and their firm
belief that for them there is no other way to
live except through perpetual strife and acting
out scenarios of vengeance. As for the Russian
foot soldiers, they relate to war and death with
a stoicism typical of the Russian narod.

In light of all this mythmaking, one cannot help
thinking of the U.S. troops in Iraq and
Afghanistan today, forcing themselves to believe
that they are engaged in a noble cause. After
all, how could they go about their daily lives,
watching comrades wounded and killed, if they had
no make believe to believe in?


I'm not sure if he ever wrote about the "battle"
that marked the end of Mongol domination of the
Russian lands, but Tolstoy certainly would have
been delighted at the circumstances of this
pivotal event in Russian history. The story is
complicated, but to put it briefly, by 1480, a
hundred years after Dmitry's pyrrhic victory at
Kulikovo, Ivan III, "the Great" (1462-1505),
became increasing emboldened in his behavior
toward the fragmented Tatar Horde. He had
recently (1478) forced Great Novgorod to submit
to the power of Moscow, and cooperation between
the Horde and the King of Poland had not yet been
solidified. In the autumn of 1480 Khan Akhmad led
his troops north against Moscow, then turned
west, hoping to join forces with the Poles, who
never materialized. Waiting for their Polish
allies, the Tatars set up camp on the banks of
the Ugra River, which was the border between
Lithuanian and Muscovite territories. The Russian
forces led by Ivan camped on the opposite side of
the river. The adversaries sat there for several
days, shooting arrows across the river and
occasionally shouting out insults to one another.
Then the ice froze over. Fearing a cavalry
attack, Ivan decided to break camp and retreat.
Noticing the bustle on the other side of the
Ugra, the Tatars also anticipated an attack and
fled to the south. The Tatar Yoke, consequently,
was lifted finally, definitively, with the
Russian "victory" in a non-existent battle.[13]

In the world of Homo sapiens, as well as in the
world of various other creatures, such playing at
war is widespread, and the consequences of
non-warfare may be just as great, or greater,
than the consequences of warfare. The
anthropologist Marvin Harris has described how
the Maring, a tribe living in the remote Bismarck
Mountains of New Guinea, wages war. They begin by
holding vast pig-eating festivals, hoping that
the opulence of their feasting will demoralize
the enemy. In preparing to fight, they arrange,
through intermediaries, an appropriate site and
clear it of underbrush. Fighting begins on a day
that both sides have agreed upon. After elaborate
ritual preparations, including communing with
their ancestors, the warriors, prancing, howling
and singing, make their way to the battleground.
They plant huge shields in the ground, take cover
behind them, and began hurling insults at the
enemy. "Occasionally a warrior pops out from
behind his shield to taunt his adversaries,
darting back as a shower of arrows is launched in
his direction. . . As soon as someone gets killed, there is a truce."[14]

In a demonstration of how frequently human and
animal play-acting behavior converge, Hölldobler
and Wilson describe the ritual combat of honeypot
ants. Arranging a kind of tournament, the workers
of two different honeypot colonies behave "in the
manner of medieval knights, one on one. They walk
about with legs stretched out in a stiltlike
posture while lifting their heads and abdomens
and occasionally inflating their abdomens to a
slight degree. The total effect is to make each
ant appear larger than it really is. . . When two
antagonists first meet, they perform a formicid
pas de deux: they turn their bodies about to face
one another head-on, then stand side by side
while straining to raise their bodies ever
higher, and then often circle each other slowly
while drumming their antennae on the opponent's
body and kicking out at her with their legs. . .
All this effort is ritualized and gentle, far
short of the ants' fighting potential. Either ant
could easily seize and slash the opponent with
her sharp mandibles, or spray her with formic
acid, both actions having a fatal result. But
during the tournaments such violence rarely
occurs. After several seconds one of the
displayers yields, and the encounter ends. The
two ants then strut off on stilt legs in search
of other rivals." As with the Marings, "the
desired result is the communication of fighting
ability. All-out war is rare."[15]

Certainly there are beneficial things that humans
could learn from the ants. Unfortunately,
however, the ritualized behavior of the honeypots
described here does not mean that they, or other
ants, are capable of resolving their problems
without bloodshed. Elsewhere in their fascinating
book the authors note that if ants possessed
nuclear weapons, the world would already have
ceased to exist. On the other hand, unlike the
Maring, the Chechens, and practically all other
human social and national groups, ants never
launch raids on other ants to get back at them
for injuries to their person or pride. Ants do
not know the concept of humiliation, and,
consequently, of vengeance (Journey to the Ants, p. 63).

Taking history and turning it into legend seems
to perpetuate itself endlessly. New legends are
concocted, through ramifications of previous
legends. July 6 (New Style) is the day
commemorating the miracle-working icon of the
Vladimir Mother of God, who, as noted above, is
given credit for stopping Tamerlane as he
advanced upon Moscow in 1395. But the story told
on the tear-off desk calendar of the Russian
Orthodox Church for this date relates the
celebration of the icon to the "victory" on the Ugra:

"In 1480 Khan Akhmat brought a huge army to the
banks of the Ugra River in order to wage war with
Rus. Moscow was on the verge of being besieged.
Then the Grand Duke Ioann Vasielevich [Ivan the
Great], arming himself with the prayers and
blessing of Herontius, metropolitan of all of
Russia, and of Vassian, the archbishop of Rostov,
set out to battle the Tatars on the Ugra. For
some time the adversaries faced off against each
other, hesitating to make a decisive move.
Finally, through the intercession of the Mother
of God, a splendrous miracle occurred. The Tatars
were imbued with fear; they became frightened of
one another and fled, pursued by no one. Thus it
was that the Lord, through the prayers of the
Most Holy Mother of God, granted unto the
Christians a unique and most joyous, bloodless
victory over their enemies, thereby sparing His
demesne­the city of Moscow and all of Russia.
When the Grand Duke with his armies returned to
the capital, all of its people voiced their most
exultant joy, praising the Lord and the God
Mother for their glorious deliverance."[16]

What does a nation (Russia, or any other country)
get out of mythologizing history and play acting
games of warfare? Ultimately, one big thing,
respect: both self-respect and (they hope) the
respect of other nation states. In Russia
respect, both self-respect and the respect
Russians think that they deserve from abroad, is
still in short supply today. So the game of make
believe goes on. But not only in Russia. We in
the U.S. today are also heavily invested in
making believe. Just read some of the most recent
statements by the Presidential candidates.

[1] J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the
Play-Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon
Press, paperback, 1955), p. 191, 152.
[2] G. P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind.
Vol. II: The Middle Ages. The 13th to the 15th
Centuries (Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 1.
[3] Charles J. Halperin, Russia and the Golden
Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian
History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 64.
[4] The most prominent émigré Eurasianists were
N.S. Trubetskoj, P.N. Savitskij, and George
Vernadsky. For information on the
neo-Eurasianists, see James H. Billington, Russia
in Search of Herself (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow
Wilson Center Press, 2004), p. 67-94.
[5] Halperin, p. 30. Sarai was the capital city
of the Golden Horde, established by Khan Batu
near the mouth of the Volga River. See also
Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A
History (Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 54:
"the Mongols did not occupy and settle Rus as
they did some other parts of their empire. It had
too little to offer them in terms of either
commerce or grazing lands." In Part Six of his
book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of
Russia (NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2002,) titled
"Descendants of Genghiz Khan," another British
historian, Orlando Figes, makes much of Tatar and
Asian influence on Russian culture and history.
He also stresses "the sense of national shame"
that memories of the Tatar Yoke still evoke in
Russians and mentions the tendency of Russian
historians to assert that Mongol domination left
no trace on Russia's cultural or political institutions (p. 366-67).
[6] In the recent "Name of Russia" contest,
which aims at determining the most influential
and illustrious personages in the history of the
country, Grand Duke of Moscow and Vladimir,
Dmitry Donskoi (1350-1389), made the semi-final
cut and was named among the top fifty. So did
Aleksandr Nevsky (1220-1263), whose life is discussed below.
[7] Entry written by Muriel Heppell in The
Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet
Union, edited by Archie Brown, John Fennell,
Michael Kaser, and H.T. Willetts (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 87.
[8] See Viktor Smirnov, Rossija v bronze:
pamjatnik tysjacheletiju Rossii i ego geroi
[Russia in Bronze: the Monument to a Thousand
Years of Russian History and its Heroes]
(Novgorod: Russkaja provintsija, 1993), p.
150-52. This source provides more significant
details about Dmitry and the Kulikovo battle; it
also notes that he was canonized by the Russian
Orthodox Church, but only in 1988. The book has a
photo of Dmitry on the monument, with his right
leg propped on the leg of the vanquished Tatar.
[9] Notes to the story "Temir-Aksak-Khan," in the
book, Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial: Stories and
Novellas, translated with notes and an afterword
by Robert Bowie (Northwestern University Press,
2006), p. 622-23. The information on Tokhtamysh
and the alliances between the Tverians and the
Mongols comes from Halperin, p. 56-57. The tale
of how Tamerlane panicked and retreated from
Yelets is told on the back of a post-card sized
depiction of the Yelets Mother of God (sold in
Yelets). In this account nothing is said about
the sad fact that Yelets fell to the conquerors and was sacked.
[10] Cited from the English translation of the
chronicle in Basil Dmytryshyn, editor, Medieval
Russia: a Source Book, 900-1700 (Hinsdale,
Illinois: The Dryden Press, second edition, 1973), p. 145.
[11] In Homo Ludens Huizinga devotes a whole
chapter (Ch. V, p. 89-104) to "Play and War." He
points out, however, that the concept of "total
war" and the invention of nuclear weapons have
done much to extinguish the play element in
modern warfare. Notwithstanding his reservations,
it seems clear that, even in the face of total
annihilation of the human race, men go on playing
at diplomacy and warfare today.
[12] My translations of passages from L.N.
Tolstoj, Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in
20 Volumes] (Moscow: "Khudozhestvennaja
literatura," Vol. 14, 1964, p. 102-07, 46.
[13] Melvin C. Wren, The Course of Russian
History (NY: The Macmillan Company, 1958), p.
173-74. Other historians provide slightly
different accounts of this "non event." See,
e.g., Hosking, Russia and the Russians, p. 85-88,
and Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, p. 70-73.
[14] Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and
Witches: the Riddles of Culture (NY: Random
House, Vintage Books Edition, 1989), p. 63-64.
[15] Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson,
Journey to the Ants: a Story of Scientific
Exploration (Harvard University, 1994), p. 69-70.
[16] My translation from the entry of July 6,
2008, on the desk calendar Pravoslavnyj
tserkovnyj kalendar', 2008. Doroga k khramu
[Orthodox Church Calendar, 2008. The Pathway to the Temple] (Kostroma, 2007).


Sunday, October 23, 2016


Over the past two years year I’ve published six works of creative literary fiction
За два годa я напечатал 6 произведений худ. прозы:

Nov., 2014: Anyway, Anyways, a collection of short stories (А все-таки, собрание коротких рассказов).

Mar., 2015: Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes (Дисамбигуации: три повести на русские темы).

May, 2015: Own: the Sad and Like-Wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph (Оун: грустнейший и блин-да печальненький сказ молодого Элькина Сельфа.

Nov., 2015: The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (a novel) (Повествование сафлора красильного (роман).

July, 2016: Googlegogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. (Гугольгоголь: рассказы на тему о русской литературе)

October, 2016: Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams (Тяжелая мамаша: роман в лекциях и во снах)

On the Russian "Narod" (Common Man) and On Playing Games of Make Believe


This article first appeared in Johnson's Russia List, July 30, 2008


                 Face-Saving Fakery, Play Acting and Make Believe in Russian History and Culture

                                                            (3) Narod (The Common Man)

                        “No, no,” said the Queen. “Sentence first--verdict afterwards.”

                                                                                  Alice in Wonderland


            I have a friend (lets call him ‘Slavik’) who lives in the South of Russia. He is pure narod (common man), making a living by farming. He once farmed on a Soviet State Farm (Sovkhoz), which, after the fall of the USSR, was privatized. In typical Russian entrepreneurial style the new owner made the farmers under his control into something like serfs. He milked them like cows, for all he could get out of them. Furthermore, the villagers soon could no longer afford to keep their own cows. They were not allowed to graze livestock on the grassland verges along the side of the road, and the price of hay was exorbitant. The villagers nicknamed their new master “Beria,” after Stalin’s notorious secret police head. In what has become typical in Russian agricultural areas, “Beria,” having screwed the maximum amount of capital out of his purchase, sold everything a couple of years ago and moved to Germany, where he is now living comfortably on his profits.

Slavik lives on, farms on in the village, planting sunflowers, borrowing money for seeds and equipment, trying to eke out an existence. He never complains.

            Does Slavik have anything to complain about? Lots. When he was eighteen he was drafted into the Soviet Army. With very little training he was parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of other recruits, to fight against the mujahideen. Most of the newly arrived recruits were killed almost immediately. Slavik survived for a few months before he was seriously (almost fatally) wounded. He ended up in a military hospital in Ashkhabad, where he spent six months. In typical Soviet fashion his family was not even notified that he had been wounded until three or four months after the incident. Nobody complained. One recalls how the soldier Petrukha Avdeev was killed (fighting against the Chechens in 1851) in Tolstoy’s long story “Hadji Murad,” how he died stoically, uncomplaining. He requested that his parents and family back in the village be sent a letter. Tell them, he said, “Syn, mol, vash Petrukha dolgo zhit’ prikazal”(“Your son Petrukha wishes you a long life” [another way of saying “died”]). When the family back in the village got the news, it was received stoically. The letter they had sent Petrukha was returned, accompanied by the standard message: Your son was killed in the war, “defending the Tsar, the fatherland, and the Orthodox faith.” [1] Nothing ever seems to change in the grand round and round of Russian history, and that is Russia’s biggest problem.

            Slavik has built himself a house and owns it outright. His only other possession of any worth is a KAMaz truck. Back when he and his wife Sveta still owned a cow (before “Beria” came along and made it practically impossible for anyone in the village to feed a cow), they made extra money by selling their cheese and milk at a market in a nearby city. One day in the late nineties, on their way back from the market, they were stopped by four young men who had been following behind them in an old BMW. Swaggering up to Slavik in their leather jackets, the young men asked him, “Where’s your gas cap?”

            The gas cap, it turned out, was missing.

            “See that crack in our windshield?” said one of the sneerers. “Your gas cap flew off a few minutes back and cracked our windshield. Now you’re going to pay for that windshield.” He named an extremely high sum.

            What had happened? The scam was obvious. While Slavik was parked back at the market, they had removed his gas cap, followed him after he drove away from the market, then pretended that the cap had cracked the windshield (which had already been cracked, and which would remain perpetually cracked, as long as these thugs could shake down other innocent people).

            What could Slavik do? Nothing. He was intimidated, humiliated in front of his wife. He had to find a way to come up with the money. The four swaggering young men in leather jackets made that clear. Eventually he did pay them off. He swallowed his pride and paid, although it took him some time to come up with the money. Why didn’t he go to the police? In Russia the narod doesn’t go to the police. If he does, the policemen may spend the first ten minutes punching him around, just on general principles. They certainly won’t do anything for him. Why didn’t he write a letter to Putin? Because letters to Putin from the common man have about as much chance being read as letters to Nicholas I. Did Slavik complain? No, he went on forbearing. That’s what the Russian common man does: he forbears, pushes on with his life, pretending that all is well. He does this indefinitely. But then one day…

            Does the common man drink? And how. Drink is often the only refuge. My friend Slavik, however, is not a drinker, and neither is his father (who lives in the same village). For this they are sometimes derided by the other villagers. Being a non-drinker violates all the traditional Russian principles. Slavik is viewed as something of the village idiot. He has a nervous condition and a stutter (consequences of  his service in the Afghan War). Whenever someone in the village needs a ride somewhere, he knows that Slavik will transport him. For free. On principle Slavik will not charge his fellow villagers. So the villagers take advantage of Slavik (while ridiculing him for his naïve generosity). Slavik never complains.

            Slavik is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the Russian narod. He is, furthermore, one of the most decent examples. Plenty of common people are decent, but plenty more live far from decent lives, and the old Russian habit of finding some special, coruscating, almost religious virtue in the narod (see Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) is pure hogwash.

            All of this is a prelude to a central fact: the Russian authorities, the people in charge have been playing games with narod for about as long as Russia has existed, and those same games go on today. Given the multitude of problems facing the country, one would think that fear of its own people would be secondary. But when people are treated the way Slavik has been treated, are they going to go on persevering, uncomplaining indefinitely? Of course not, and Russian history has ample examples that they won’t. So what are the people making the big money in Russia today doing? The same thing they were doing in the much-lamented nineties—finding ways to get their money out of the country, buying property and luxurious mansions all over the world. The flight mentality (or rather, getting ready for the flight just in case) affects not only those at the highest income levels. A recent survey reveals that large numbers of the “upper middle class” would like to leave the country and are preparing for emigration. It seems that anyone who has made much money in Russia has a “just in case” scenario. Why? Because everybody knows that the common man is still being trampled upon, and, while the patience of the Russian common man is legendary, everybody knows that it has its ultimate limits.  

Now, just as always throughout Russian history, there is a large underclass that is shamed, humiliated, oppressed--a group of people who have experienced little or no improvement in their living standards and shared none of the enormous oil wealth that has accrued to the privileged classes. These also, as always, are the people who provide most of the cannon fodder for Russia’s military operations. Parents who can come up with the money pay the necessary bribes to keep their sons out of military service. The common people don’t have the money to pay the bribes. The people who fit into the category of those who are “just barely getting by” economically is roughly fifty to seventy percent of the total population today. There is really no middle class yet in the Western sense. It’s just the top and the bottom. This unbalanced class situation makes President Medvedev’s dreams for the future glories of Russia (a worldwide role in finance, oil sales denominated in rubles, Russia as a true global partner of the Western democracies, etc.) look bleak, if not preposterous.

The Russian people (narod) bore/bear  the brunt of suffering. That has been axiomatic in Russian, from time out of mind:

“The peasants were most likely to be killed or enslaved during Polovtsian raids [12th Century] into the Russian forests, while the aristocracy, merchants, and some artisans continued to trade profitably with the nomads.”[2]

Throughout the period of Mongol domination (1240-1480), the princes acted as intermediaries between the Tatar overlords and the people (see Halperin, p. 78), enforcing conscription, deciding which persons would be sent into slavery, collecting tribute (and siphoning off some of it for themselves before paying the Tatars). Doesn’t that sound familiar? The top dogs reap the profits, while the people forbear. In the five hundred years since the times of the Mongols little has changed. Today in Russia the new millionaires and billionaires, plus the entrenched bureaucrats, go their merry way, using and abusing the common man. The attitudes of the younger generation do not hold much promise for making things better. Do young people say, “We need to change this whole system, which is rotten from top to bottom”? No. Many of them say, “We need to get a job with the bureaucracy, say, with Gazprom, where we can prove ourselves the best crooks and make the most money. The system can’t be beat, so we’ll just join it.” The decent young people who don’t want to play crooked games remain “down on the farm” like Slavik. They try to keep their decency, work hard; or they drink and succumb to cynicism.

I once had the misfortune to deal (in St. Petersburg, 1996) with Zhenya, a sleazy operative (part KGB, part ex-military commissar, part mafia, part “New Russian”). In reference to the vouchers distributed in the Yeltsin years, he told me, matter of factly, sneering, that the voucher system amounted to one more way for schemers to steal from the people. “Narod vsegda budet obmanut” (“The people will always be deceived”) was his mantra. “We’ll beat their bare ass, and they’ll say thanks.” People such as Zhenya are certainly still around. The common people shudder when they look back at the excesses of the nineties, but they understand, of course, that despite Putin’s retaking control of the situation, the same types of leering swindlers still control most of the country’s wealth. To oversimplify somewhat, Putin got that wealth back from the biggest swindlers of the nineties (Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky), then passed it out again to his own cronies--plus to the “new oligarchs” (Deripaska, Abramovich, etc.), whom he knew he had in his own back pocket. Meanwhile, the narod, the common man suffers on, as always. He may even take heart in believing that things under Putin have improved somewhat. After all, certain of his neighbors can take vacations in Turkey. Then again, Putin has made the country an economic power and renewed its prestige worldwide. The common man is a Russian nationalist, so he surely takes pride in this. Yet, deep down, the narod plays the same self-defeating games it has always played. These are games of cynicism, lack of self respect, and, ultimately, the destruction of self--through drinking and smoking, indulging in excesses, flaunting “pofigism” (the doctrine that it’s all the same to me whatever happens to me).

            None of the above implies that Russia is ripe, at present, for a revolution from below. There is no immediate evidence of that, but such a possibility is always on the minds of Russian leaders. That is why they are quick to provide low prices on vodka and bread in difficult times. It also explains why even the most innocuous of demonstrations in Russian cities is greeted by riot police (OMON) in huge numbers, often outnumbering the demonstrators. No one can explain the propensity of the Russian people to maintain indefinitely a stance of cowed resignation, but, of course, Russian history also has periods when the patience of the common man runs out. One major task for Russian leaders of the twenty-first century is to level, finally, the playing field, to relieve their people of the burden of humiliation and convince them that they will receive material benefits long due to them. As far as I can tell, the Putin-Medvedev tandem has not even begun addressing this task.

While continuing to do what the common man (narod) does best in Russian history, to work on patiently, holding its tongue, attempting to survive, the underclass of today feels enormous resentment, of course, toward the new monied elite. There have been times in Russian history, of course, when the resentment boils over and the pugachevshchina begins. That word, describing the mindless, stikhijnyj (elemental, primordial—a scary word for Russians) peasant rebellion of Pugachev under the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), is synonymous with a bloodbath. The twentieth century had plenty of pugachevshchina, and unless something is changed radically, there is reason to believe that the twenty-first century will have its fair share of the same.

Probably the best descriptions in twentieth century literature of the spirit of pugachevshchina come from Isaac Babel (1894-1940). During the Civil War years following the Socialist Revolution of 1917, Babel, a Jewish intellectual, rode with Marshal Budyonnyj’s Red Cavalry forces, who were engaged in driving a Polish invading force out of Russia. Using his diary of those years (full of descriptions of grotesque cruelty) as a source, Babel first published the book of fiction Konarmija (Red Cavalry) in 1926. As an example of what Russians most fear from the long-suffering common man, let us take a detailed look at one of Babel’s stories from that cycle.  

                        “THE LIFE STORY OF MATT PAVLICHENKO”

This short story describes a kind of ritual performance played out by “Red General” Matvei (Mathew) Pavlichenko. Inspired by the glorious revolutionary year of 1918, in the midst of a twentieth century pugachevshchina (the bloody civil war), Matt Pavlichenko acts out the old game of humiliation/vengeance. On the final page of the story Matt is shown staging a performance for himself, as well as for his victim and that victim’s crazed wife. In narrating the story of his revenge he is putting on a different performance, which consists of the lively and original way that he tells this oral narrative (in a spirit of grisly play) to its audience (and to us, its readers).[3]

Matt has been shamed, not by his lowly status as herdsman on the estate of the landowner Nikitinsky, but by the master’s treatment of his wife. Early in the story (this is before the Russian Revolution) he describes how a man from the village has come to him telling tales:

“’Matt,’ he [the old villager] says, ‘the master’s been feeling up your wife in all the best spots. The master, he’s about to have his way with her. . .”

After this Pavlichenko goes to see Nikitinsky, in an attempt to “settle up” with him. Here the meaning involves settling accounts and quitting his job; the idea of “settling accounts” is to take on a different meaning at the end of the story.

“That evening I made it to the Lidino manor house on foot. There he was, my master Nikitinsky, setting all pleased with hisself upstairs, a-fiddling around, that old man was, with three different saddles. . .

“So I plants myself besides his door, hung out there for a whole hour, like a burdock plant just growing and growing, but all to no good end. Then he looked over my way.

‘What do you want?’

‘Settle up.’

‘You got designs on me?’

‘Ain’t got no designs; just want to settle up.’

“He looks off to one side for a spell, he quits looking up at the road and looks off at some sideways alleyway, and then he spreads crimson red saddlecloths out on the floor. They was brighter than the banners of the Tsar, was them cloths, and he stands up on top of them and commences to strut and crow like a rooster.

‘Freedom to them that’s free to be free,’ the old man says to me, and he goes on cock-strutting around. ‘I’ve wham-bammed and thank-you-ma’mmed every last one of your mommas, you Orthodox Christian peasants. You can settle up if you like, only ain’t there one little thing that you owe me, Matty my friend?’

‘He-he,’ I says, ‘You are one comic fellow, I mean to tell you as God is my witness. Seem like it’s you who owes me my earnings.’

‘Earnings!’ the master crows out and he knocks me smack on my knees and kind of scrunches all over the floor with his feet, while he’s boxing on my ears like Father, Son and Holy Bejesus.

‘Your earnings, you say, but how come you forget that yoke of mine you ruint last year? Where is it at, my broken ox-yoke?”

‘I’ll get you back your yoke,’ I answers my master, lifting my sorry little simpleton eyes up to look at him, while I’m there on my knees before him, lower I am than any low spot there is on this God’s green earth. . .”

Time passes, and Matt can’t earn enough money to pay back his master Nikitinsky for the broken yoke.

“And so what do you think, you boys out of Stavropl’, my fellow countrymen, my comrades and dearest brothers of mine? Five blessed years the master waited on me for that debt I owed, and for five lost years there I set, lost, until such time as me, down and out and lost, me I had a visit from Year Eighteen. She come to see me riding happy-go-lucky stallions, the best sort of Kabardinian horses, that Year Eighteen, dragging behind her a humongous convoy and all sorts of songs. And O-ho-ho, you’re my sweetheart, you are, Eighteen! And sure as I stand here, must be some way we can go out with you one more time raising Hell, sweet Eighteen, dear little darling of mine. . .”

The revolutionary year 1918 for Mathew Pavlichenko, as for so many of the long-oppressed lower classes of Russia meant freedom, the kind of Russian freedom best defined by George Fedotov: “wide open spaces, vagabondage, the gypsy ethos, hard liquor, orgies of debauchery, blind sensualism, highway robbery, rioting, despotism.”[4] Of course, this is not freedom, but license, and one of the self-defeating games that Russians (Russians of the narod included) best play with themselves is the make believe that there’s no point in putting out the effort to bring democracy to the man-on-the-street Russian; he won’t know what to do with it. Even worse, he’ll immediately transmogrify democracy into the chaos that ends with despotism. No, freedom in the Western sense (so the tale goes) is not for Russians; they need somebody to control them. The usual phrase is, “Russia needs a strong hand” (repeated ad nauseam by Russians living within the country and those living abroad). It’s a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” or, to put it in the most overused cliché of modern-day punditry, it’s a “zero-sum game.” The ultimate in cynicism is expressed by the following: “As an old friend (who spoke virtually native Russian) once said, ‘The best government they ever had was the Mongol Yoke.’”

“For Russia’s entire history, the country’s blossoming, its progression, its global hegemony. . . was attained and held only in the presence of a strict, singular authority—an authority that controlled all spheres of human activity. . . Such was the case under every dictatorship, strong monarch, czar of all Rus or prince in his principality. A strong, strict, but dependable ‘hand.’ There has never been a democracy in Russia because the Russian person is not capable of it. . .”[5] Of course, if the majority of the Russian population continues to believe that Russians are “genetically” incapable of developing true democracy, then it will never be developed. But what’s even worse, if democracy is not developed, the same old dog eat dog will continue, as it always has, and the round and round of Russian history will circle back to an old familiar place: violence, gross cruelty, anarchy, blood running in rivers.

Matt becomes a “Red General.” Riding the steed of his “sweetheart,” Year Eighteen, he wreaks havoc on the Russian land. Then one day, while “laying on blood outside Prikumsk,” Matt realizes that he is only a few miles away from his old estate of Lidino. Leaving his detachment, he rides all alone over to the estate, walks in the manor house, and finds his former master Nikitinsky, serving tea to some local officials.

“Greetings,” I says to them people. “Hello, please, to you all. You going to welcome me in, master, or how is it going to be with us?”

“It’s going to be quiet, real genteel between us,” says one of them fellows, and I can tell by the way he’s talking that he’s a surveyor. “It’s going to be quiet and aristocratical-like, but now you, Comrade Pavlichenko, seem like you been a-galloping from way far off from here, being as the looks of your face is spattered with muck. Now we, the local land authorities, we believe that’s a terrible way for the looks of your face to look; so, now, how come that is?”

“On account of because,” I says, “you land folks and you cold-blooded sorts running things around here, on account of that on my looks I got one cheek that’s been all hot and burning for five blessed years. It’s burning in the trenches, burning when I’m with some split-tail; at the Last Judgment it’ll still be a-burning. At the Last Judgment,” I says, and I look over at Nikitinsky, I’m acting like real merry-making, but he ain’t got no eyes in his head no more, just ball bearings in the middle of his face, like as if them bearings rolled into place underneath his forehead, and he’s glancing me over with them crystal ball bearings, making like he’s a-winking and grinning, but looking just very out and out miserable.”

“Matty,” he says to me. “We once knowed one another, and see here now, my wife, Nadezhda, owing according to what’s been going on these times, she’s lost her reason, and she always was good to you, Matty, you had so much respect for her, now wouldn’t you like to see her, being as the light of reason has left her now?”

“Could do,” I says, and me and him go into the next room, and then he commences to touching me, first my right hand, then my left.

“Matty,” he says. “You going to be my destiny, or not?”

“No, I ain’t,” I tell him, “and forget all them fancy words. We’re all not nothing but stooges now, and God’s done run off on us. Our destiny’s a turkey, life’s not worth a crap, so drop all them fancy words and listen here, if you so desire, to a letter for you, from Lenin.”

“A letter to me, Nikitinsky?”

“That’s right; it’s to you.” Then I pulls out my notebook for the orders of the day, opened it up on a blank page, and read, though, truth be told, I couldn’t read if my life depended on it. “In the name of the people,” I read, “and for the establishmentarianism of the great glorious light of the future, I hereby order Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionych, to deprive of their lives various folks, according unto his discretions.

“There you have it,” I said to him. “That’s the way it goes, Lenin’s letter to you.”

And he says to me, “No!

“No,” he says. “Matty, our life’s plain shriveled up and gone to the devil, and blood’s cheap these days in the Russian Empire of the Holy Apostles, but you, now, whatever blood you got coming to you, you’ll get it by and by all the same, and you’ll forget my eyes glazed over with death, so now, wouldn’t it be better if I was to show you a little stash?”

“Show me,” I says. “Might could it’ll make things better.”

So we went with him through the room again and then down into where there was this wine cellar, and he pulls back a certain brick down there and finds a little box behind the brick. Inside it there was rings in that box, there was necklaces, medals and a holy image with pearls. He tosses it over to me and then he goes all slumped down out of being so scared.

“It’s yours,” he says. “Now take that Nikitinsky sacred heirloom and make yourself scarce, Mathew; head on back to your rat hole in Prikumsk.”

That’s when I grabbed ahold of his body, took him by the gullet and the hair.

“And what do I do with this burning cheek?” I says. “How do I make things right with my cheek, people and brothers of mine?”

And then he laughed out way too loud and he’s not even squirming to get out of my grip.

“You got the soul of a jackal,” he says, and he’s give up trying to get free. “I treat you like I was talking to a officer of the Russian Empire,” he says, “and you smuthound guttersnipes, you all sucked the teats of a she-wolf. Shoot me, then, you son of a bitch.”

            But I wasn’t about to shoot him, wasn’t no way I owed him a shooting. I just dragged him back upstairs to the parlor. Up there was his wife, lady Nadezhda, setting there plain out of her gourd, and she’s got the bare-blade of a saber in her hand, sashaying around the room and watching herself in the mirror. And when I dragged Nikitinsky in there, she run off to have a seat in a armchair, she’s got a velvet crown with feathers sprucing up her head, and she sets there in that chair all pert, and presents arms to me with her saber. Then I commenced to tromping on my master. I tromped him for a hour, maybe even more, and during that time I come to know what life was all about. Shooting, now—I’ll be honest with you—shooting’s just a way to get shed of a fellow. It’s like granting him a pardon, and for yourself it’s just a lousy too easy thing to do. With shooting you don’t get down to the soul, to where it’s at inside a fellow and how it makes itself shown. But me now, there’s times when I don’t take no pity on myself, I been known to tromp on the enemy for a hour, even more, cause I have this desire to learn about life, what our life on earth amounts to. . .”[6]

[1] L.N. Tolstoj,  Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in Twenty Volumes] (Moscow: “Khudozhestvennaja literatura,” Vol. 14, 1964, p. 57-62.
[2] Charles H. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 17.
[3] “Zhizneopisanie Pavlichenki, Matveja Rodionycha,” in the collection, Isaac Babel’,  Konarmija. Odesskie rasskazy. P’ecy (I. Babel, Selected Stories and Plays). Chicago, Illinois: Russian Language Specialties, 1965, p. 72-76. Titled literally “A Life’s Account of Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionich,” the story, which I (attempt to) translate here in part, is, basically untranslatable, in that it is told by Pavlichenko himself, an illiterate peasant who can’t possibly have written down the oral tale, since he can’t write. In the title he uses a wrong grammatical ending in his own name, and he narrates in a mixture of substandard literary phrases, Revolutionary rhetoric, peasant speech, and weird neologisms. All of this is blended occasionally with the neo-Romantic imagery peculiar to Babel. At least two (attempts at) translations of the story have appeared in print: (1) “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko,” translated by Walter Morison, in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (NY: Criterion Books, 1955), p. 100-06. (2) “The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvey Rodionych,” translated by David McDuff, in Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 144-49.
[4] Fedotov cited in Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind (London: The Bodley Head, 1977), p. 161. The original is G.P. Fedotov, Novyj grad: sbornik statej [New City: A Collection of Articles] (NY, 1952), p. 152.
[5] This commentary (by a Russian, “Arnven”) was posted in response to Clifford Levy’s article in the New York Times (June 3, 2008) about censorship on Russian TV. The remark about the best government being that of the Mongol Yoke is on that same NY Times blog. In opening up the series of articles by Levy to comments from the general Russian public on the Internet, the Times has done a great service to its readership. Especially interesting (should be read by any American doing business in Russia or thinking of developing a business there) is Levy’s article about William F. Browder (“An Investment Gets Trapped in Kremlin’s Vise,” July 24, 2008). What makes the article so worth reading is the plethora of insightful comments about it, from Russians as well as from other readers all over the world. Available at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/index.html Scroll down to “On-Going Series” and, under this, “Kremlin Rules.”
[6] In a weird twist of fate the author himself, Isaac Babel, charged with a bizarre crime typical of the nightmare years of the Stalinist terror (spying for foreign powers and acting as an agent for Trotsky), was arrested in 1939. True to the philosophy of Matt Pavlichenko, his jailers and torturers granted him the mercy of a “pardon” (a bullet to the back of the head in January, 1940) only after tormenting him and trampling upon his dignity, not for “a hour or more,” but for months, maybe even years—the official Soviet version of his death declares that he died in Mar., 1941, and it lists his place of death as a Siberian labor camp, so we still cannot be absolutely sure that he died in Moscow in 1940.