The Russians are coming . . . again?

When I was a kid there were no two ways about it: Russians were bad, in fact, they were positively evil, and the emergency drills we practiced in grade school for a nuclear attack struck this truth home. Whether or not putting our heads under our desks would have done much for our safety is another thing altogether. The main point was that we should be afraid and that the Russians were the indisputable reason why. And there was no reason to question this. In my neighbourhood of second generation Italian immigrants who made it a habit to disagree about everything, this was something everybody agreed on.

Somehow during my adolescence I meandered my way into Russian literature, initially as a distraction from other academic responsibilities. Thus the worlds described by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov began to take shape and I found the work of these authors addictive. And, naturally, I asked myself if these Russians, the people these great writers described, were the same Russians who had now become such a menace. How? Why? Perhaps all those years of Communism were to blame, whereas in America the will of the people ruled, the majority at least, possibly silent, but no doubt democratic.

And now, it seems, the Russians are at it again! Putin is Hitler and the Russian bear is bristling to engulf all of Europe in its claws. Never mind the West-sponsored coup on its doorstep in the Ukraine, or NATO’s staging of massive war games on its borders. Never mind that it has been the United States and its enlightened partners who illegally invaded Iraq and Libya, devastating both countries, and are hell bent on consigning Syria to the bonfire created by its vanities in pursuit of a so-called war on terror that has created far more terrorists than existed before the war began. And never mind that it wasn’t Russia that created the refugee crisis that has taken Europe by storm.

Western propaganda, however transparent, does have a certain efficiency: even in relatively pacific and remote New Zealand the mere mention of Putin or Russia brings an alarming look of consternation: beware!

I’m wise enough to know about the chasm between governments and the people they purport to represent, smart enough to know that consent is routinely manufactured to support pre-conceived policies, and that the elites who rule often undertake actions in defiance of a people’s will. Yes, the chasm is there, in all modern nation-states, I admit.

But I wanted to write something about the Russians—well, some of them, those I met on a recent trip to St. Petersburg. I wanted to write something genuine and personal and unpretentious, that might help to give enough of a glimpse into a place that might as well be Mordor according to the West.

My visit to Russia was occasioned by a conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of the great composer Alexander Scriabin. I had the opportunity to attend a recital of Scriabin’s late piano works at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, and so I did, and for the price of a cup of Starbucks Coffee (yes, they’re there too!), I managed to obtain a ‘standing room only’ seat along the plush benches at the sides of the Small Hall.

I was astonished. First, I had never seen so many young people at a classical music concert anywhere before; I thought for a moment there had been some mistake, but no, they were there, many of them, pre-teens, teens and young adults, in addition to the usual concert-going suspects of older years. Second, throughout the recital the rapt attentive listening of the audience was palpable—and these, mind you, were very complex, difficult and challenging pianistic works. I scanned the hall and noted that most of the listeners had their eyes closed and that the audience comprised a wide range of social type, babushkas, babes, ascetics, elderly gents, couples, families, you name it. Could what I had read about the Russian devotion to art indeed be true?

The next incident is just as telling. After a long day at the famed Hermitage, I set out in pursuit of a salon where I was told a few of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings were displayed. I got there, at last, and began to take in these marvelous canvases. The room was empty save for a museum guard and myself, and I gazed my fill. The guard approached me—perhaps I was getting too close to the pictures? But no, he approached me to talk about Kandinsky’s work. He was a courteous man in his early sixties, and he informed me—in English of course—that he had been working in this part of the museum for over two years, and that he never tired of Kandinsky’s work, which seemed to grow by the day. After a half hour of discursive artistic engagement, which included his noting several special features of the paintings, we parted. This was the first time in a lifetime of museum-going that a guard had said anything other than “Move back!” or “This way please!” to me.

So the next morning as I walked along the Nevsky Prospekt, I began to think that maybe these Russians weren’t so bad after all—until I felt an unexpected tap on my shoulder. I shuddered. What now, the KGB? A holdup? I wheeled round in consternation. The man who had accosted me was speaking Russian, pointing to my shoes: my laces were untied. I thanked him—and began to think even better of my comrades.

Yes, there are politicians and governments and the wars they create and the lies they tell and the fears they stoke . . . but there are people too. It’s nice to be reminded of that occasionally, even if these people just so happen to be Russkies.

Dr. Garcia is a poet, novelist and physician who now resides in New Zealand. He may be contacted at emanuelegarcia@gmail.com.

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5 Responses to The Russians are coming . . . again?

  1. Pingback: The Russians are coming . . . again?

  2. Well said! I enjoyed reading the author’s sketches recounting his interaction with citizens of Saint Petersburg. The lesson is that frontiers needn’t cause alienation; ordinary human beings have a great capacity for communicating with one another in a courteous, intelligent and peaceful manner.

    Unfortunately, government agendas discourage such communication. Most states condition their subjects to believe that which is foreign is menacing. With that point of view, mistrust, hostility and aggressive action are turned into reflexes. And here’s the problem: how can people rebel against a government and corporations that have conditioned them not to investigate but to obey? How do they learn to speak up against an oligarchy that has come close to destroying our earth? I believe articles such as this one published here by Emanuel E. Garcia, can steer us toward asking questions and exploring different points of view. That’s a good start.

  3. Delightful. Many tks dear Manny. Very inspiring indeed. You have a way to mix prose with poetic imagery (mental at least) that gives color to your writing.

    I remember at the end of the Cold War I was in Hawaii, at the university, and there was a movement to bring together the Russian and American peoples at the grassroots, family, person-to-person human level expressly to bypass the elites, military, politicians, media and the government. Gorbachev was just around the corner to incite Reagan to commit a ‘lunacy:’ end the freezing war. I participated in events where Russians would come to Honolulu to know and be known by us. An experience that stayed with me to this day. We need something similar (perhaps in the near future?) again.

    I was in Moscow and like you did not find anything like the counter-propaganda would have us believe. Seeing is believing. Thank you again. It will go up on the website I edit, of course. https://www.transcend.org/tms/

    Antonio

  4. Good work, Doctor Garcia …

    As in Russia and America the government is not the people.

  5. I teach English to Russians in Edinburgh. In 2015 I talked about my tactic to get the students engaged in class was to talk about politics. The other teachers were interested but surely that is unfair you would beat them in the arguments they assumed. But I agree with them I said. You could have heard a pin drop, were the teachers afraid or just shocked. In 2016 it had gone too far. I took my Russian students out into the streets of Edinburgh armed with survey questionnaires. The questions asked Scottish people what they felt about Russia. The Russian students were overwhelmed by how positively Scottish people viewed Russia and Russians. The Scots are not afraid of Russians. The overwhelming majority of Scots favour getting rid off our Trident missiles but as yet we do not have an independent country so we are not allowed to exercise that political right.