Saturday, October 3, 2009

Russian Death

Before Nick starts telling folks that Tolstoy got it wrong when it comes to death, I have to quote from Lidiya Ginzburg's Blockade Diary, which describes the ultimate death scene: the siege of Leningrad during World War II. According to Lidiya, Russians prepared for the German onslaught by reading War and Peace. And this, after they had already been through World War I which, modern critics like Paul Fussell tell us, was supposed to have killed all respect for 19th century portrayals of battlefield heroism. In particular, Lidiya says, people read Tolstoy to find out whether or not they were doing what they were supposed to do in the midst of the hell and horror that was all around them. But props to Tolstoy aside--it says something about a man who was still relevant after the purges--Ginzburg's Blockade Diary is all about the Russian capacity to embrace spectacular ends. Russians' real genius, it seems, was to embrace the fact that they as a people would survive, and that individual catastrophe meant nothing. She didn't find jingoism when Hitler attacked without warning, but the following common sentiment: "Well, one thing is for certain: we're done for." But the "we're" in that sentence refers to those who were talking, not the Russian people as a whole.

Ginburg's Diary is brilliant. Leningrad was the ultimate death. She analyzes the slow death in phrases such as this: "So painful, so fearful was it to touch one another, that in propinquity, at close quarters, it was hard to disdinguish love for hatred--toward those one couldn't leave." Or, referring to the body: "The body advertised its presence through pain and itching.." or "In winter, after people were discovering bone after bone, the alienation of the body proceeded..." And later, realizing people hadn't the strength to sit upright any more, "It turned out, for example, that the vertical posture was by no means inherent in the human body; the conscious will had to hold the body under control; otherwise it would slither away as if it were falling down a cliff..."

Nevsky Prospekt

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