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 firstname.lastname@example.org.