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Being Russian

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979

BEYOND THE WAR/
essay

Being Russian

Anna Katsman on Her Family.

Andrei Tarkovsky was a director and film theorist working in the Soviet Union. His dreamlike films explore the themes of desire, memory, and place. These stills are taken from Stalker, in which two individuals are led by a guide into the mysterious "Zone", a place where one’s deepest desires can be fulfilled. The images are depicting their perilous journey into the Zone and the 'pool sequence', a melancholic long shot featuring submerged and abandoned objects tangentially pointing to Russian identity.




When the war broke, I called my parents. I asked them what they thought, and I told them that I might write something. In rushed tones, they replied, “don’t tell anyone you are Russian. You have nothing to do with Russia. You are an American.” I bristled, then softened. As on many occasions, I know their fear is an aftereffect of living under the former Soviet Union. My dad recites the family myths often. My grandfather, head of a production plant, was followed by the KGB to synagogue for Yom Kippur. The next day photos sprawled on his desk, agents telling him to choose between losing his job and daring to go to synagogue again. Or the time when Stalin died, my grandfather came home to my grandmother weeping in distress. Without saying a word, he closed the curtains, locked the door, and pulled out a bottle of champagne.

We left Russia in 1991 while my uncle and his family remained. He wouldn’t tell us anything over the phone. It might be tapped. We pieced together what he wanted to communicate through breaks in his voice. Tiny hints of reality. His daughter and grandsons are trying to leave the country; there is talk of border closing. It is reported that many Russians do not even know the war is happening, and cannot properly judge or respond to global events. For those who see through the smoke screen and act, over a decade in jail.

The true Russian gesture today is leaving Russia and helping others leave.

What is it to be Russian at this moment? Throughout my life being Russian always meant leaving Russia, opposing Russia, while loving Tolstoy, Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and Tarkovsky. When I went back for the first time, I tried hard to feel a sense of home. “This is where I was born,” I would say repeatedly in my head, emphasizing the word born, as if saying it more insistently would do something. But I couldn’t find it. I was moved by St. Basil’s Cathedral – though didn’t Ivan the Terrible poke out the eyes of its architect so he could never reproduce it? Even as a myth, I still think it captures the Russian spirit. Or what about the tiny strawberries that live in the birch forests? I love those strawberries, but that’s not it. For me, home has always meant a place worth living in, a place whose people, values, culture, and political institutions embody social freedom, dignity, the rule of law, love of and respect for their natural environment. Home, like love, is where you find yourself in another.

The true Russian gesture today is leaving Russia and helping others leave. My dad’s cousin, born in Mariupol and now living in Kassel, Germany, is temporarily housing four Ukrainian refugees. We spoke on the phone the other night. Each is broken off from family still in Ukraine. The phone lines are out, they can’t get in touch, and the news reports more and more deaths every day. No food, no water, no medicine. The youngest among them keeps asking, blankly, when she can return to her university studies. My cousin tries to be cheerful and supportive and notices that, above all, they keep talking about logistics.

The upcoming years will bring trauma and confusion, children growing up in broken families, anger, fear, cultural and political illegibility.

My family once had to find a new home, even though they were Muscovites and under unspeakably less violent conditions. Even then it wasn’t easy, and they still carry their history of struggle with them. As it stands, either Ukraine will be destroyed or we will enter into another world war. The upcoming years will not only involve geo-political reshuffling, new questions of energy independence, military alliances, and the like. The years will bring trauma and confusion, children growing up in broken families, anger, fear, cultural and political illegibility. How will we receive this?

As someone privileged enough to have left Russia, it seems to me that our work at this particular moment in time is to welcome refugees into our homes and communities. This is a matter of material support, of course, but not only. Ivan in Brother’s Karamazov despairs and celebrates the absence of God, the freeing of the will, and insists, aggressively and nervously, that humans cannot just live; they must have something to live for. Are our homes places worth entering into? Are our spirits wide, sensitive, inviting enough? I do not say this in a sentimental tone. It feels rather fragile and weighty, an unsure mixture of responsibility and potential.

Anna Katsman is a fellow in the programme "The Foundations of Value and Values" at THE NEW INSTITUTE. She completed her PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.

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