Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Packing Knowledge

Do you keep a travel list of what to pack and things to do before leaving home? My packing begins long before a trip with a reading list related to my destination. Travel in conjunction with reading provides a way to explore a region or related topic.  Usually I discover how little I knew.

I recently returned from my first trip to Russia and for all the reading that I did about Russian history, I realized that I didn’t learn enough about today’s Russia. My expectations were woefully out of date, more tied to the Soviet era than the present. Because this trip was sponsored by the Museum of Russian Art, we had the good fortune of having quite a bit of expertise on board. That included authors and historians, people conducting business in Russia and one traveler who grew up in Russia. Several wore more than one of those hats.

We had several evenings set aside where we explored the questions that arose as we confronted the Russia of today. Those who had the opportunity to observe the development of Russia throughout time noted that in the past it largely focused on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and revolution. There is a renewed interest in the Romanovs and the theme of imperial power, something perhaps that Putin hopes to benefit from.  The question is what do you do now with the unsavory aspects of Soviet history? One solution has been to re-define the Soviet experience as being about World War II when the USSR played a critical role in the war as well as suffered great losses. There have also been efforts to commemorate those who lost their lives under the despotic Soviet regime. The Last Address Project places a plaque commemorating that history at the former home of a victim of repression, much like the stumbling stones that commemorate where Holocaust victims once lived.

I’ve spent the past year reading extensively about Russian history beginning with the czars, moving into Soviet times and more recently into today’s Russia.  I am struck by a theme of totalitarianism that runs throughout. Initially it was an imperial society run by the Tzar with support from the class of nobility. A very significant portion of the population was comprised of serfs and peasants, creating an inherently unstable society. After the revolution the nobility was uprooted and often executed. The players changed, but oppression through fear remained a constant. 

So why this recurring theme? One theory that intrigued me was to look at it through the lens of slavery. The United States' Civil War was over 150 years ago and yet we are still dealing with the aftermath of slavery. Russia had its own form of slavery in the serfs who represented a third of the population, 20 million people when serfdom was abolished in 1861. By contrast, in the US at that time slaves represented 4 million people. Serfs were Russians by birth and of the same race and religion and yet were viewed through an entirely different lens than other classes of Russian society. They were Other. Studies of Russia have found that a history of involuntary servitude results in lower economic and educational achievement many generations later. In the US this underlying inequity resulted in a civil war and a painfully slow correction which is still ongoing. In Russia it created an environment which fostered totalitarianism. Despite attempts to move to a more open society it continues to rear its head. Censorship was lifted under Gorbachev and Yeltsen tried capitalism, but economic disarray followed and the 1990s were described as a jungle run by thugs. Putin was viewed by many Russians as a stabilizing force who reasserted Russian identity even as he consolidated control.

So, are Russians better off today than during the Soviet regime? Our guides shared their experiences from the past which varied widely depending upon where their parents were positioned. They seemed to feel comfortable speaking about their experience which at one time would have been highly unwise. Having said that, it was also evident that there remained issues that were deeply felt and not discussed. Now they can travel, something that would not have been possible before. Food is available in grocery stores without the queues of the past. With some of the benefits of capitalism also comes greater insecurity and fewer guarantees.

I started with reading so let me end with some recommendations. As I move my attention to the Russia of today, I have found two books helpful in finding greater understanding. Red Notice by Bill Browder filled me in on today’s economic environment, the corruption within Russia and the power of the oligarchs. It also explains the underlying story of the Magnitsky Act and why Russia is so eager to get that lifted. This non-fiction book reads like a gripping novel. The other book that I would recommend is The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen. This National Book Award winner follows the lives of several families through time giving us a perspective on the Soviet times and the progression to today. As someone who grew up in Russia and has since left, Gessen offers an inside perspective on the country of her birth. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Connection and Division

My husband and I are both introverts. Unnlike some of my more extroverted friends we can go an entire trip without speaking with anyone but each other, waitresses and hotel clerks. This trip has been quite different so far. As we sat in the Amsterdam airport, my husband was approached by an airport representative who was doing a survey on airport experiences. Two brothers in a nearby area had a chance to hear his replies and posed a question to him on what they heard. We had picked up a bit on them as well,  eavesdropping on their conversation. We may be quiet, but we are curious. Turned out we were all heading to Lithuania, them on a bit of a roots trip, something I know quite a bit about because of my involvement in genealogy. We conversed further and found them to be interesting people, continuing our new friendship one night over dinner.

We were emboldened by this satisfying connection. At a subsequent dinner we overheard someone at another table mention Minnesota, the state in which we live. As he exited the restaurant, we asked if he was from there. Indeed he was. The innocent question of what brought him to Lithuania took us down an unexpected road. He noted that he thought Western Europe was being destroyed by immigration and was doing a bit of a farewell tour. That led into a political discussion that was disturbing to say the least. 

When he noted that he considered the Kavanaugh hearing to be a travesty, it occurred to me that we might be coming to that conclusion from quite opposing philosophies. It reminded me of the time I was confused by a reference to Lithuanian partisans. I was most familiar with the Jewish partisans who fought with the Soviets against the Nazis. The Lithuanian partisans did exactly the opposite. Duh (head slap!), partisans can be on either side! As I expected, his travesty assessment was on “poor” Judge Kavanaugh.  Mine was on the Senate’s plan to vote immediately after going through the motions of hearing Ford’s testimony.

 I am not one to stand down in such conversations. Even as I have little desire to engage in pointless political discussions, I feel it important to state I do not share their view. I did so politely keeping my voice low, hoping to signal to him to do likewise. Did I mention that he was loud and opinionated? My husband and I caught each other’s eye with a mutual plea of “Get us out of this!” Hints to wind up were not working. The most cringe-worthy moment was when the Italian co-owner poked his head in nervously wondering if everything was ok. Our new acquaintance in the middle of an anti-immigration rant replied, “We were just talking about you.”

So did this encounter serve to reinforce our desire for insularity? Quite the opposite as the story continued to unfold. After he departed and we heaved a sigh of mutual relief, the restaurant owner joined us in conversation. We quickly disassociated ourselves from the prior gentleman’s views. There was no “we” involved. I mentioned to the owner that I had fond memories of his restaurant from when I was there almost ten years ago to attend the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I still remember our very international group singing Happy Birthday in a multitude of languages to a good friend in their open courtyard where we frequently gathered. 

He told us that he was a filmmaker and for a film he is working on he had interviewed Fanya, a much treasured survivor who had taken us around the Jewish quarter and to the bunker in the forest where she was a Jewish partisan. He too had gone to the forest as part of their interview. He had also spoken with the artist Samuel Bak who was a child in Vilnius during the war and paints extraordinary work out of that experience. We had just visited a large exhibition of his work at the Vilnius Tolerance Center and had seen his work in Massachusetts, where he now lives.  Our new friend told us that after the war, those who survived found temporary shelter in the courtyard behind the restaurant where the arches of the loggia were then divided into rooms. He told us the story of a woman with whom he spoke who told him her grandfather while living there had planted a large tree that remains today. I recognized a fellow storyteller who builds connection through his stories, a welcome antidote to that earlier discussion so focused on division.