ESSAY: European Idyll Needs Russia's Bleeding Wound
- By Anatoly Korolyov
- Sep. 02 1998 00:00
Whenever I show visitors the various tourist attractions in the Russian capital, I have always noticed the eyes of foreigners gleam at the sight of the Lubyanka. Did they really shoot people here? And how many people a night? Is that so? Really, a prison up there on the roof?
An eye full of crocodile tears and lips puckered around invisible straws through which they suck up the puddles of our blood. I don't blame them. Let God be the judge. But so much furtive lust for Russia's pain, like a leach poking a manicured finger into a wound, ever deeper, sweeter. And such disappointment at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square, where they used to draw and quarter people last century. All you see now are prostitutes. Occasionally, I really think it's time for our travel agencies to ask the Duma to restore those glorious old traditions. Instead of Pierre Cardin's models, show something of St. Basil's: a head, an arm, a leg ...
During a discussion at the Goethe Institute in Moscow, the famous German intellectual and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger expressed with cautious optimism his belief that the problem of evil in at least European, if not human, society had nearly been solved or at least significantly limited, and that mankind had nothing more inhuman to fear in itself.
However, I believe the European man will continue to exacerbate human deterioration. The first to descend to the true animal state will be the once-serviceable Soviet man. A perfect example from today's papers, which I just threw down the trash chute with the garbage: A career naval officer in our own glorious Pacific Fleet, furious that a certain sailor by the name of Kim did a poor job of wiping off some motor oil, threw the sailor into an 80-centimeter-by-37-centimeter crate in the ship's hold. The sailor began to suffocate and called out for help, at which his fellow servicemen reported to the officer that the sailor was dying. Only four hours later did the officer open up the sweatbox to discover that the 19-year-old sailor had long been dead. Zero concern, 100 percent brutality. Alas, Mr. Enzensberger, the sea of spilled blood is still wet. As before, the storm is still drizzling scarlet rain onto our century, and, unlike the West, we have long grasped that evil is found inside oneself.
Here is one clear illustration of the different approaches in Russian and German thinking on the problem of evil. Fritz Lang's excellent film "Die Nibelungen" contains a scene where Siegfried, the knight in shining armor mounted on a white steed, dispatches the foul dragon with his flashing sword. In other words, with the Germans, evil is embodied in a form other than human, and it is enough to vanquish this "it" to ensure that good triumphs over evil. An altogether different approach prevails in the Russian consciousness. At the level of folklore, our fairy-tale dragon is more humanlike altogether. It is always given the gift of speech and often a human character, and is equal in stature and similar in appearance to Bogatyr, the hero. In other words, evil is hidden away inside mankind itself.
So in Europe, you could say Russia alone insists on the indelibility of evil and binds the destruction of evil with the destruction of man himself. This results paradoxically in our national export of pain.
Here a different discussion comes to mind, not in the Goethe Institute but the Glasnost Defense Foundation, where former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently met with a crowd of Moscow writers and lamented for the thousandth time the fact that Russia has become a supplier of raw materials to the West. I made so bold as to disagree with Mikhail Sergeyevich that this is a tragic state of affairs, noting that Russia has for centuries cornered a unique market in raw materials, starting with furs, timber and wheat, and then at the end of the last century becoming the greatest supplier of new art, and after the Revolution, of social and political ideas. In the future, too, we should remain a supplier of raw materials, not just oil and gas, but of great thinking too.
Understandably, the former president disagreed strongly with this sentiment. We are pained by the loss of superpower status. Just as the devil recoils from wafts of church incense, we shrink from the humiliating image of plying raw materials. Yet what we must do is try to produce the raw material and product simultaneously. This ready-made quality is found in literature, art, ideas, and it is also found, as tragic as it may seem, in pain.
Hollywood understood this long ago and is busy pumping out millions of barrels of cinematic blood from the plot of land beneath Los Angeles, flooding the earth with all manner of horrors with a happy end. For each scarlet drop shed in the blockbusters, thrillers and detective movies, a gold coin is earned.
We do it for nothing, and so export yet another ready made raw material-come-product: Russian horror. Not that of the movies, but one that is all for real and where there are no happy ends, which goes some way to explaining that enthusiasm for the Lubyanka. It's plain boring to live in Bochum or somewhere, one's senses dulled by a mug of beer, when you can come here and feel your hair stand on end. According to some estimates, there were 19,840,000 arrests, and 7 million executions during Stalin's Great Terror. How exciting to take a walk in the breeze at hell's gate, safe in the knowledge that you have a European passport in your pocket. Alas, suffering is also a part of the world, but better the suffering is done by others, so as not to taint the taste of that cheeseburger, or spoil that drive along a nice smooth highway. (By the way, have you heard how exclusive French restaurants worry about the nerves of pigs that are to be taken to the slaughter? God forbid that the swine get wind of what awaits them at the end of the trip, for the meat will be spoiled by the adrenaline released and will offend the gourmet's palate. These piggies are moved in cars lined with felt, accompanied by the music of Mozart and Vivaldi.)
We, alas, will continue to live on the edge of the world, with no accompanying music, and keep hacking each other up for real.
I still hope that the bloody storm blowing over us and the scarlet, screaming whirlpool gulping the murdered, tortured and humiliated is not all for nothing. Russia illuminates Europe with its pain, stops it from going crazy from satiation, quenches a thirst for real suffering.
If we imagine the Christian world in the form of the crucified Christ, Russia's place on this mystical map can be found in the area of the wound under the Savior's left rib, opened by the Roman soldier's spear. That is the fateful straw drawn by the country -- to be an open, unhealing wound. But it is impossible to imagine Christ without this wound. Without it the Incarnation would be incomplete and Christ would cease to symbolize man's redemption.
Russia's lot is indeed bloody, tragic, but never banal. So feed away to satiation, those that would, Russia's doing all right as she bleeds away.
Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.