Filming the Illogical Nation

This year, I've been knocking around the fringes of a film series being made for an American audience about Russian culture. And I've been watching -- with enormous sympathy -- as the producers, in one preliminary script after another, have tried to confront the task of translating Mother Russia into something that will attract an audience in, say, Peoria, Illinois.

Making this country digestible and "Oh-I-see-now" familiar, though, is an unbelievably difficult enterprise. For if you go in one direction, you end up in a cul-de-sac; if you follow another line of reasoning, you end up with something so bizarre that no Western audience could ever grasp it.

It's the same sort of problem with India, I think. I remember once seeing a television film about the sub-continent made by an old and celebrated English journalist who knew it very well. But it ended up with a long and bizarre sequence of him sitting in a hotel room trying to get through on the telephone to London. He drank most of a bottle of Scotch while he waited for a line, and talked to the camera about the impossibility of coming to any conclusions about the country we'd already seen through his meanderings.

Finally he said something like: "The problem with India is that there is nothing of which you can say 'This is true,' without it also being untrue. The problem, perhaps, lies not with India, but with us in the West: our endless truffling for truth, our belief in documentary reality, our damned either/or."

What he was saying, I believe, was that the whole notion of encapsulating a place like India through a single-image medium, unfolding in time, was doomed from the start. It just wasn't a serial kind of place; it was all-at-once, simultaneous -- and endlessly contradictory. And the first thing we had to leave at home when we went there was precisely our habit of categorizing everything and wanting it to conform to our own way of looking at things. "Either/or" should be jettisoned, consigned to some Left Luggage facility, since "both" (not to mention "although" and "maybe") was where the local kind of truth -- if such it was -- was located.

The same thing, I'm convinced, is true of Russia. What, after all, can you logically (rationally, explicatorily) say about a Kremlin which remains closed and paranoid, riddled with bugs and haunted by court astrologers? Nothing in the West quite prepares us for this. To find an equivalent, you have to read Richard Kapuszynski's extraordinary books about the courts of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and the Shah of Shahs in Tehran. What can you say about the conflicting claims to truth in public life here of fact, myth and gossip and whatever a newspaper writer dreamed up or was paid to pen this morning? For some sense of this kind of world, you have to read the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's dream-like "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

It's because he understands all this that Edvard Rodzinsky is, I think, the greatest of modern Russian popular historians -- and one of my Two Men of 1996. In person, he scatters stories and bizarre anecdotes; he laughs with delight; his favorite expression is: "It's fantastic; it's fantastic!" And in his books and television appearances, he has done more than anyone else to open up the haunted, chaotic landscape of recent Russian history. Rodzinsky is now turning his hand, he says, to "the mad monk," Rasputin, whom he sees not as the stage villain the West tends to want him to be, but as a man with "deep roots in the Russian soul and in ancient religion," representing "an aspect of pagan Asian Russia still present in our lives." I can't wait -- and neither should the film-makers. His book promises to open up the world of those old sects which used to wander Russia and are an important part of her story: the milk-drinkers, the orgiasts, the flagellators, the self-castrators -- and the Rasputins.

My second Man of the Year? The cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who between all his other engagements worldwide has tirelessly applied himself to the cause of Russian music-making. He has given money for the rebuilding of the Christ the Savior Cathedral -- he has his own hard hat, with his name on it, on site. He spends as much time today as he can in St. Petersburg. And he even became embroiled for a moment this year in the bizarreries of Kremlin politics. A meeting, apparently bugged by the ex-head of President Boris Yeltsin's bodyguard after the arrest of aides carrying half a million bucks out of the Kremlin, revealed that their preferred means of escape from Moscow would be in the boot of Rostropovich's car. I wonder what on earth he made of that! Happy New Year!