Friday, August 3, 2012
Fainting Into the Past
Someone once said that the past is a foreign country. I think this expression means that the present is not merely a logical extrapolation or even natural continuation of the past. Instead, the past is alien, mysterious, and unknowable if one doesn’t know the language. We feel, or should feel, more like tourists than residents even when we delve into our own personal histories. In some ways, investigating former modes of living is as difficult as trying to get to know our own subconscious or unconscious lives.
A few days ago I came face to face with this form of foreign territory when I fainted dead away, collapsing face first on the floor of my apartment. The doctors told me that the incident was caused by an electrical event in the heart unrelated to the machinations or strivings of a promiscuous subconscious motive. Be that as it may, loosing control of one’s physical movements, even for a moment, is a reminder that we are not always authors of our own storyline; more often than not, we are puppets of the past, or characters in somebody else’s play, or even victims of a set of circumstances we hardly seem to recognize.
The past, when it bursts through to the present, is dark, furtive, powerful, and even terrifying. The strange thing about the past is that it cannot be ignored for very long. You can spend a lot of time and effort trying to remain in the present, but sooner or later you lose the battle and “faint” into the past. It’s as if you went up to the bartender and asked for a beer but he served you a freezing blast of high-powered water from the hydrant instead. I think the point of therapy is to introduce you more gradually and gracefully to the foreign country of your own history. You can’t help but see a foreign country as strange and unpredictable, but you can become slowly acclimated to its bizarre rituals and traditions.
What happens when a whole country “faints” into its own past rather than slowly comes to terms with the archeology of alien memories? What is the national equivalent of individual therapy? I think most nations try to manage the jarring effect of historical consciousness by erecting sites of memory and mourning and fostering some sort of ritualized collective remembrance. Some nations are better than others at remembering. Remembering takes courage of course. It’s easy to celebrate a one-sided, triumphal arcadia, and much harder to admit to national pain, loss, conflict, and guilt. Complicating the question of remembrance is the fact that some countries have more to remember than others; or, to put matters another way, some countries have more subconscious motivations to avoid remembering than others.
Russia, of course, is traditionally seen as one of the most tragic nations ever to walk upon the stage of history. Perhaps this is an unreasonable cliché: is it really possible than one group of people have had it harder than any other? Whatever the case, Russian intellectuals and non-Russian observers note that the Russian nation’s understanding of the past, both recent and distant, is extraordinarily dark. An elderly Russian today may indeed remember the chaos, humiliation, and corruption of the early 2000s; spectacular geopolitical collapse of the 1990s; the moral and economic stagnation of the 1970s; the apocalypse of WWII; the abject horror of the Great Purges; the decimation of the Collectivization famine; the bloodiness of the Civil War; and the trauma of the Revolution. The Russian past is truly monstrous in many respects.
Although it’s easy to dismiss the triumphs of Russia’s modern history—including the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the creation of a modern economy for instance—most Russians did not, and could not, afford to dwell on national tragedy. In fact, David Satter’s book, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened. Anyway, Satter's book shows that even twentieth century Russian history contains ample evidence of objective historical achievement. For instance, Russians today often correctly remember that the Soviet government offered them job security, educational benefits, health benefits, and a general sense of international prestige. Satter even argues that Russian working class citizens in the 1970s might well say that they had it has good as their counterparts in the West; while they certainly earned less, and possessed fewer objects than their Western brethren, they also worked far fewer hours, and at a much slower pace. In the end, Soviet citizens may not have had much apartment space, but they did get paid vacations and never sweated about whether or not they would get fired for poor performance.
Satter’s analysis of Russia’s complicated relationship to the past, and to Soviet history in particular, is nothing short of masterful. Russia’s problems are manifold. First, Soviet history is particularly (though of course not uniquely) horrific. The author draws upon seemingly hundreds of discrete episodes of Soviet political terror and mass murder to explain the tangled web of Russian past and present. Second, notwithstanding the fact that Russians played a leading part in The Soviet Union’s Party leadership circles, Russia has tried to detach itself from the wider story of the murderous Soviet Empire. While the USSR may have been the “prison of nations,” Russia was allegedly only one of the many victims of international communist conspiracy. Third, Russians, before, during, and after the Soviet experiment, have celebrated the principle of raison d’etat and autocracy; almost every crime has been justified in the context of Russian power., and many today celebrate the Rise of former KGB leader, Putin, as some sort of paradoxical anecdote to the historical angst of the Russian people. Fourth, so many Russians were involved in Stalin’s bloody tyranny, or its heirs, that the process of repenting, confessing, or publicizing past crimes seems confusing or even overwhelming to most Russians. If almost all of the country’s leaders (and many of one’s own family patriarchs) participated in abuses, can we reject them all? Are there really no heroes in a 73 year period of history in which the Soviet Union triumphed over Hitler and became a superpower?
The confusion is Russia is all-consuming. As one citizen asked: how is it possible to erect a monument to both Stalin and his victims? Fifth, the Russian people often seem to prefer to blame others for the sins of the past, including Jews. If even the great writer Solzhenityn could ignore historical statistics in order to ask the Jews to accept responsibility for vicitimizing the enormous Russian population, how are ordinary Russians expected to blame their own state for their present predicament? In the end, the past in Russia is more of a foreign country than almost anywhere else. This is understandable. The Soviet past beggars the imagination for its bloodiness and cruelty. According to Satter, Russians have been victims of an ideology that devalues human life in favor of the state and its alleged needs. Even the greatest of Russian writers, including Pushkin, Gogol, Chaadaev, Berdyaev, and Solzhenitsyn, have sometimes embraced this sad logic, accepting the cruel and antihumanist notion that Russians were born to suffer. Until the Russians learn to grieve the past, and repent of their countrymen’s enormous mistakes, it seems they will be likely to faint repeatedly into the past.