Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Me

In the summer of 1991 the Soviet Union began to fall apart. Russia established its sovereignty that summer, and a hardliner coup was overturned by Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and his democratic allies. By December of that year, Boris Yeltsin pulled the plug on Lenin's political experiment by joining with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to establish the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of sovereign entities that looked almost nothing like the monolithic superpower that preceded it. The final act in the drama took place on Christmas Day of that year when Gorbachev announced on CNN that he was ceasing his activities as president.

It's impossible to overstate the signifance of this bathetic conclusion to seventy years of Bolshevism. After little more than half a decade of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet leaders and ordinary Soviet citizens walked away from superpower status, Marxist theory, and Communist idealism. But what was I doing while the nuclear briefcase passed from the urbane but anachronistic Gorbachev to the alcoholic but immensely popular Boris Yeltsin? In the summer of 1991 I was graduating from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. As a student of international relations, I should have had a keen sense of the historical import of the moment. As I've mentioned previously, I had only recently completed three different courses on Russian history and statecraft. And yet, like most Americans, and some professional Kremlinologists, I remained oblivious to history. In fact, like most folks, I was, in the words of Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, "busy tryin' to do for me."

 That summer I sustained a series of minor personal setbacks, which seemed impossibly depressing to me at the time. In the first place, I failed the hyper-competitive Foreign Service oral examinations, something I hadn't really anticipated doing when I got accepted to a hyper-competitive international relations academic program. I remember this first Foreign Service failure vividly, even though I went on to fail the exam three more times before finally passing the exam a decade later. At one point, the examiners gave us a mock inbox of directives, written queries, and other forms of correspondence that demanded our attention. Without any previous work experience outside of Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Baker's Square, I smugly assumed that my decisions could scarcely be gainsaid. And yet, upon being told that day that I had failed the exam, the female examiner felt it necessary to add that the she and her colleagues had been "quite shocked" by my refusal to meet with a secretary who had, according to the mock organizational chart, wanted to criticize her supervisor, my fictitious chief of staff. During the exam, I reasoned that "real life" bosses would never stoop to undermining high level officers in the organization by meeting with their subordinates. To this day, I'm not quite sure that I was wrong about my assumptions about business life, but certainly it didn't do me any good to profess such cynicism at such a young age.

I want to tell my readers that things go better from here but they didn't. I moved to California, in pursuit of a woman who would one day do me wrong. In California, I took up a job for nine dollars an hour, right across from a strip club on Sunset Boulevard. In an attempt to escape my fate--which I wrongly concluded I had done nothing to forge-I took the Foreign Service exam a second time. This time, as they say in Godfather, "things got rough, Boss." Yes, I failed the exam a second time. The tragedy this time is that the examiners actually praised me, saying that I had done so well on the exam that it would have been "statistically impossible" for me to do any better than I had done, without actually passing the exam. The "good news" of the near miss devastated me. What happened next was par for the course. Walking outside, I noticed that it had recently rained but failed to notice that this rain had flooded a large area that blocked my way. The flood at pushed up a mass of floating wood chips that I now attempted to step on. Sinking about five inches deep into the flooded zone, I felt ridiculous. I only had one suit and this dunking seemed to be nature's way of telling me that buying a new suit was no guarantee of worldly success.

I remember thinking how I might have been able to accept the loss of a childhood dream like becoming a major league baseball player or astronaut; but why was the dream of becoming a government bureaucrat so unattainable? I took the Foreign Service test two more times before finally passing it. On the fourth time out, I was so desperate to pass and escape graduate school that I began to experience what must have been something akin to a panic attack. Making my way to the bathroom I peered into the mirror to try to get a hold of myself. The vision in the mirror horrified me. Having shaved a little too zealously that morning in preparation for the exam, I had nicked myself, leaving a few small drops of blood. In my heightened state of nervousness, I saw something quite different, something akin to a bloody, severed head. I blinked but could only see a dress shirt drenched in oceans of crimson blood. Surely this embarrassing sight would be the end of my quest to enter government service! And indeed this, or at least my exaggerated anxiety over the test, did lead to a fourth failure.

My quest to work in the field of international relations seems a bit comical now, or tragic, depending on how much sympathy one has for the follies of youth. It's ironic, to say the least, that my struggle to secure a place in the State Department should have distracted me so thoroughly from the events in Eastern Europe that were reshaping the world. History is like that. We think, to paraphrase Althusser, that "the future lasts forever." But it never works out that way. Nothing is permanent. The Soviet Union and the Cold War melted away and I hardly noticed they were gone. The Russians themselves weren't that concerned either apparently. Nightline and CNN provided the world with more coverage of Gorbachev's exit from the stage of history than any news outlet in Russia, and not merely because of Yeltsin's distaste for the man. Apparently Russians knew that Communism had died years if not decades early, and that Glasnost and Perestroika were just morbid attempts to animate a corpse.

And in case you were more interested in global history than you are in personal history, please see Conor O'Clery's thrilling book, Moscow, December 25 1991:  The Last Day of the Soviet Union.  Conor's book juxtaposes that final day with the year leading up to it.  Although the role of the American press gets far too much attention, the book goes a long way toward helping readers to see understand and assess the best and worst qualities of two great men, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Divorced From Soviet Reality

As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm reading Norman Mailer's book on Lee Harvey Oswald.  I've loved Norman Mailer ever since I read his books in Montreal in order to avoid working on my master's thesis at McGill University.  Mailer was regarded (and not just by himself) as one of American's best post-war authors, and rightly so.  But although he was a brilliant writer, his fatal flaw was that he was that his versatility meant that he never fully mastered one particular subject or style.  I've loved many of his books, including Executioner's Song, Why Are We in Vietnam?, Tough Guys Don't Dance, The Deer Park, Son of Man, and The Naked and the Dead, but none of them is a perfect book.  In fact, each of these wonderful reads seems to be an imitation of some other, slightly better, book.  For instance, Mailer's Executioner's Song is almost as good as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but it achieves Steven King-like readability at the expense of Capote's originality and profundity.

Mailer's Lee Harvey Oswald may not even rank among Mailer's best books, but Mailer can't seem to write a truly bad book.  In fact, Mailer does many things right in his Oswald.  First, he has chosen a remarkably interesting hero for the subject of this "American mystery."  While Oswald seemed to hover on the brink of high-functioning autism or some sort of a narcissistic personality disorder, at the tender age of 21 he somehow managed to place himself right in the middle of 1960s global realities by defecting from one superpower, the United States,  to its nemesis and alter ego, the Soviet Union.  Once in the Soviet Union, Oswald encounters and then embraces a hundred signs of Soviet reality. First, the Soviet Union's official tour guides from Intourist guide him around the capital.  Next, the country's ubiquitous security agents arrange for Oswald to remove himself to Minsk, in the hear of Belorussia.  After that, Oswald is allowed to find a job, mingle with Soviet colleagues, and even date a series of Soviet women.

The secret police monitor the potential spy closely, but want to give Oswald enough personal freedom to engender careless behavior that might ultimately betray his clandestine ties to American spy networks.  Oswald, a mixture of bad Russian language skills and political naivete, embraces Soviet reality, at least at first.  As a privileged outsider, Soviet officials want to give him the chance to become acclimated to socialism;  they want him to thrive in that reality.  Accordingly, he's given a modest apartment with a view in a country with a severe housing shortage.  He's also given a small stipend.  Interviewed many years later, Mailer and his researchers uncover a quotidian Soviet reality of propaganda movies, political surveillance, anti-antisemitism, and unhappy memories of the German invasion fifteen years previously.

What Oswald encountered in Minsk was a rapidly recovering Soviet Union that had only recently emerged from the terror of Stalinism.  Oswald didn't seem to mind.  He had already severed his personal ties to home.  Living without almost any contact with countrymen or family members, he sometimes talked to a friend who had studied English or tuned in to the Voice of America to hear even a fragment of his native language.   Oswald professed disgust with American militarism, and seemed to agree with the Soviet Union's official assessment of American inequality.  But even KGB agents agreed (and their testimony, along with Oswald's diary, has been unearthed by Mailer's researchers) that Oswald was politically immature.  Notwithstanding his alienation from American society, he was only tangentially familiar with Marxist-Leninist political economy.

This state of alienation from both East and West must have been devastating, or would have been for a more mentally healthy individual.  How can one imagine such a state of isolation? I can think only of my recent divorce.   Before divorcing, I thought mostly of the loss of my partner.   The reality was much worse than this.  Having gone through the legal separation, I wonder how, once upon a time, a simple breakup could seem so devastating.  In high school, my girlfriend of two years broke up with me and I was a mess.  I could scarcely admit to myself how painful the experience had been, and certainly never said anything to my friends about the feeling of loss.  I guess I imagined that I would be alone forever, or that life would just go downhill from that point on.   With divorce, the experience of loss, alienation, and isolation is magnified many times over.  You lose your partner of many years, but also your friends and family, and ultimately you lose your child as well.  My saddest memory of the divorce is this:  when showing my young son his new home, and new room, he discovered a brand new Star Wars lunch container I had bought him.  He looked at the lunch bag with gratitude and exclaimed:  "Thank you, Daddy!"  It felt like being kicked in the stomach:  tearing my son out of his familiar world and placing him between two opposing worlds, he was thanking me for the ruin I was bringing on him.

Of course, this smacks of hyperbole:  divorce, when it comes, is often the best thing we can do for our children.  And in reality, we all lose our children eventually when they grow up, make friends, and leave for college, and then move out of the home once and for all.  Divorce merely accelerates the process.   I felt many times as if someone had driven a bus off of a cliff with all of my friends, family members, and acquaintances on it.   Where once I could see my child every day, now I see him only on weekends.  Where once I had a right to see my child on Christmas, now I have to check a legal document to see if that's possible or not.  How is it that Lee Harvey Oswald willingly embraced this type of radical isolation from everyone he knew?  The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere on the borderline between insanity and adventure.  But I will have to finish Mailer's book to get his full explanation of Oswald's American tragedy.  Of course, Oswald's story reminds us all that things can always get worse.  One minute Oswald is divorced from his father;  the next minute the whole country is divorced from its patriarch.  As Shakespeare once said, and I only paraphrase him, "when sorrows come they come not as single spies, but as whole brigades."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

House Hunting with Gogol (or, How I Lost My Mother)

Although I am officially on hiatus, I continue to read Russian history and literature, however fitfully. So I'll post now, just to keep in practice. Currently, I'm reading Henri Troyat's wonderful biography of Nikolai Gogol. Like all of Troyat's biographies (and I've previously commented on his books about Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turganev, Alexander I, Catherine the Great, and Pushkin), this one balances a healthy regard for the author's literary genius with an equally healthy regard for the more absurdly comic aspects of his author's unusual life. I'm also reading Norman Mailer's biographical work about Lee Harvey Oswald, who spent some of his formative years in Communist Russia.

But to return to the subject of hiatus, I'm wondering why Oswald and Gogol aren't inspiring me to write as they would have one year previously. I'm wondering whether the problem is that I'm too bored to write, or, conversely, too preoccupied with an increasingly active life to spend time on this blog. It's strange to be unsure if one's life is too empty or too full at a specific moment in time. At any rate, my life hasn't been uneventful in the past few months. I got engaged, for instance, just one week ago, to a wonderful woman. Without her, as Victor Shklovsky said, the sea has no color. This, of course, has led me to reflect on all sorts of things, including love. But one of the most emotionally destabilizing things I've done recently is to tour homes with the intent to buy one with my bride-to-be. 

First, of course, is the question of location. Where does one live? Should one live cheaply or well? Should one look for low taxes or high aesthetic quality? And even if one decides in favor of the beautiful, does one look for a beautiful home or a beautiful neighborhood? Looking for a house is an almost overwhelming experience, since it's one of the few times in life one is often forced to think in terms of one's entire lifetime. When looking for a home, we're not just asking whether or not he'd like to live somewhere in the coming year, we're asking if we'd mind (potentially at at least) living and dying in a particular spot. And like Steven King's book, The Shining, we find traces of other people's life decisions everywhere we go.

In one home I recently visited, the seller's hopes and dreams were overpowering. This was, perhaps, largely because he insisted on showing us the home himself. Having lived in the place for many, many decades, he seemed to be asking us to take up a life journey he could no longer pursue. The fact that the home was hopelessly outdated, a mixed up jumble of luxuriously ugly features, didn't help matters. There was a pool, a bar, reflecting pools, Japanese decorations, and a hundred other reminders of 1960s splendor. The whole place reminded one of how proud Mr. Brady must have been of his Brady Bunch ranch palace. The seller's description--a taste of the Hollywood Hills in suburban Chicago--just about fit the bill. This place spoke to the suburban glory of the 1960s, before the suburbs had lost their charm. And the seller, a doctor with a tightly clad Playboy Bunny wife about forty years past her prime, still saw this wreck of a house, whose yard was (not ironically) made up of AstroTurf, as something Bob Hope or a member of the Rat Pack might well covet. Pondering the place, I wondered what the right response is? Does the home need to be loved? Would it be the death or birth of my own dreams? Would I sell some space-aged, middle aged man this place forty years hence?

House hunting is an emotional process by any reckoning, so readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that my search inevitably led to the very source of my emotional volatility:  my mother.  Like Gogol, my mother's presence looms large in my life.  For Gogol, who lost his father at an early age but was doted upon by a mother who believed her odd son could do no wrong, his mother was never far from his mind.  Long before he had any right to believe he might befriend Pushkin and make an enormous mark on the literary world with Dead Souls, The Inspector General, The Nose, Diary of a Madman, and The Overcoat, Gogol's mother told anyone who listened that her strange and awkward son was a genius and demigod.  Gogol, who had only sisters, was doted upon by his mother, and never doubted her messianic interpretation of his life's mission:  to conquer the world, one way or the other.

I encountered my own mother in the process of home hunting, and encountered her on multiple occasions.  With apologies to the writers of one of my favorite television shows, my experience in home buying might, thus far, deserve the title:  How I Lost My Mother.  The fact that my mom died decades ago didn't lesson the impact of her several appearances on Redfin and ReMax tours.  At the outset of our search for a matrimonial home, my fiancee and I looked at small homes in Hinsdale, Illinois.  The location, astride two convenient highways and right next door to my place of employment, and surrounded by wonderful schools, seemed too good to ignore.  Additionally, it had the advantage of being someplace other than the suburb in which I grew up.  Who wants to repeat the past so precisely by moving into the very suburb one grew up?

One of our favorite homes in Hinsdale turned out to be directly across the street from the hospital where I was born.  Surely buying the house would have been something more than a metaphorical return to the womb?  Of course, as Gogol taught us, life is a strange mixture of comedy and tragedy, and so I soon recalled that this hospital was also the scene of my mother's chemotherapy.  Recalling childhood trips with my mother to that dreaded site of cancer treatment, I found myself driving once more over the small, fragile bridge right outside the hospital that I once knew so well.  The rickety bridge was, once upon a time, a special joy for a little kid:  in the middle of a ordinary suburb, this awkward, single-lane bridge over the train tracks seemed to belong to a much more remote time and place.  The bridge was fun, but sentimentally tied to locus of death and dying in my child's imagination:  the Hinsdale hospital.

Looking in LaGrange, my fiancee and I found another wonderful house, but this time the home turned out to be two doors down from my first home, which had long since been torn down.  How strange to be pondering the purchase of something so proximate to one's original shelter?  The home, located right along the train tracks and right next to my high school, had an enormous backyard, but the noise of the passing trains was almost unbearable.  It was so loud there that I wondered how my mom and dad dealt with the noise themselves over forty years ago.

My mother has appeared to me in dreams these past few weeks as well.  When she died, she visited me regularly for the first several years.  I'd dream that her cancer had turned out to be less severe than originally diagnosed.  Everything had been a mistake:  Mom had somehow survived, and life could continue on its normal trajectory.  The dreams themselves were delicious:  I was safe and sound, for Mom had never left the stage of my life.  Waking from these dreams was another matter.  How many times does the average survivor re-experience the death of a loved one in the waking hours of morning?  Probably hundreds of times.

Last week, I dreamed that I was looking for a home and found a really perfect one in LaGrange Park.  The home only had one regular bathroom, but there was a crude, unfinished half-bathroom in the basement that would make things work.  In a pinch, the kids could use that one.  The three bedrooms were large, the closet space was excellent, and there was a large yard and garden.  The house wasn't anything special, but it was very livable.  With a porch, living room, separate dining room, and expanded kitchen (not pretty, but large), what more did one need?  The school was reasonably good too, only a short walk for the kids.

Imagining my current family in that home felt wonderful, but it soon occurred to me that this was the very same house in which I grew up.  As such, it was also the last home I shared with my mother.  I moved only a year or so after her death.  And of course I realize now that by moving I not only left my childhood behind, I left my mother, whose spirit even now probably lingers in that place, a place of mingled joy and sadness.  If one hasn't been traumatized by loss one might not understand how a place, or a person, can be haunted.  But Gogol would have understood me.  Accustomed to writing about Ukrainian spirits and Romantic encounters with St. Petersburg phantasmagoria, even without the benefit of Freud, Gogol's Gothic imagination would have allowed him to appreciate the irrational and supernatural dimensions of even an ordinary house hunt.  (And no, it has no escaped me that today is Mother's Day).