A close friend of mine, Oksana Fyodorovna Nikolskaya, passed away a year ago today. She died of Covid in a hospital in St. Petersburg. Where does one start to tell the story? In medias res— in the middle of the action— as Homer did and as subsequent Greek and Roman literary scholars advise? At the Beginning, as the Bible apparently does? “I am born,” write English novelists wryly, and what could be more of a beginning at the beginning than that, but then a solitary person’s life is part of a long stream of other related lives, starting with two parents and maybe an Uncle Toby and is therefore very much, and very deliberately, a genesis in medias res: the irony of it makes plain that there is no ideal answer, and it is the indeterminacy of the predicament that we have to make do with.
Okay, I’m starting in the middle. It is the fall of 1982—three years before Gorbachev and his policies of Perestroika (“reconstruction”) and Glasnost (“Openness”)—and the narrator, a young Columbia instructor of Ancient Iranian, is taking a break during a conference on Armenian linguistics and pauses on the steps outside the Matenadaran, the institute of ancient manuscripts in Erevan. The temple-like building stands on the crown of a hill commanding the panorama of the capital of the southern Soviet republic. Mount Ararat hovers in the sky beyond, a tremendous, snowy, sacred ghost.
Erevan spreads out before me, a city of pink, red, purple, black carven tufa; the signs are in both Russian and the graceful, ancient Armenian script; you enjoy long talks with friends in sidewalk cafés; there are stone water fountains everywhere; you stroll in the shade of trees; grapes hang from trellises in front of apartment houses from which comes the aroma of Armenian cuisine. Soviet Socialist Erevan is a delightful place to be. A few miles from the NATO missile bases of genocidal Turkey, it is also the defiant miracle, the reborn homeland of a people who a few generations before walked starving and barefoot on death marches into the nothingness of the desert, of extinction.
A professor of Byzantine studies, an older man named Karen Nikitich Yuzbashian, joins (Karen is an ancient Parthian dynastic name used often for men in Armenian). I am holding some scholarly books in Armenian that I’ve just purchased, and at that moment the radio reports that the Brezhnev regime has banned the export of books from the USSR. (In the end, I will have no trouble with my books, and the Moscow airport customs officer will not even glance at the letter Armenian officials have written on my behalf.)
Я этого просто не пойму, “I just don’t understand this,” I remark to Karen Nikitich, who spreads his arms to encompass not just the city relaxing in the golden autumn day but the whole Union of Soviet Socialist Republics beyond and replies,А остальное Вы понимаете? “And the rest of it, you DO understand?” That wry line, with its wonderful irony, becomes the foundation of a lifelong friendship.
Eighteen years later, there is no more Soviet Union, I am working at another college, I go to Leningrad, no, by then it’s St. Petersburg, and expect to stay with a Russian-Armenian lady colleague who’s said she’ll put me up at her flat. But she has gone off somewhere and it is Karen who meets me at Pulkovo airport, with another friend, Muhammad Abdulkadyrovich Dandamayev. Muhammad, of blessed memory, was a professor of Achaemenid history and a cuneiform scholar, from Daghestan in the North Caucasus, a native speaker of Lak. (He had stayed at my place in New York some years earlier, when Perestroika was opening the borders of the USSR.) “Forget her,” says Karen, of my derelict host; “of course you’ll stay with me.”
The Armenian Yuzbashian and the Daghestani Dandamayev, I soon discover, are neighbors in a pleasant apartment block Khrushchev built for scholars of the university and the Hermitage. There are so many Jews living there that the slang name of the building on Orbeli Street is “Little Israel”. Muhammad Abdulkadyrovich has a Jewish wife; Karen Nikitich, a Jewish son-in-law.
So I did stay there, that summer, and the next, and the summer after that. Karen was the center, the magnetic pole, of a large group of friends, including Oksana—the friend I’m writing this essay in memory of.
She was what Americans would call an army brat: her dad was an officer and the family moved around from base to base. She has a broad, smiling Ukrainian face (has, not had, because faces don’t die, they remain in the memory of God), but she was born in Penza, in central Russia, and had majored in math at Moscow University, where she read samizdat (literally, “self-published”, the banned writing of Soviet dissent). Once she showed me the faint, fragile, closely typed carbon copies of the forbidden books of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and others. The pages, from multiple typed carbon copies, were dim and fragile as onion skins. She kept them in an old briefcase— a kind of reliquary of the totalitarian past.
Oksana was a widow: her husband, a Russian-speaking Armenian, had been a scholar of German literature and a bibliomaniac. For once a year for about a decade thereafter, I stayed with Oksana in her book-choked apartment on Dolgoozyornaya (Long Pond) Street, in a vast housing project on the edge of town. Books in boxes. Books in the kitchen. Books in stacks in the corridor. Hillocks of books in the entryway. As I mentioned above, Oksana was Ukrainian. Others in Karen’s circle were of Jewish ancestry, or were Gentile Russians. Or Muslims from the Caucasus. But, I do not recall anybody ever saying a word about ethnic identity. It would have been low and vulgar to discuss such things. They were all intellectuals for whom personal integrity, rigorous thinking, devotion to world culture, and, above all, being a good friend were what mattered, not national or religious identity. Tribalism and identity politics were unthinkable.
Oksana and I went once on a long day trip to the medieval city of Novgorod, a magical place immortalized in Eisenstein’s film “Alexander Nevsky” with the musical score by Prokofiev. We befriended a student from Spain on the tour bus, and on the way back to Petersburg we got off early to splash about in the fountains surrounding a statue of Lenin pointing into the future.
Another time Oksana and I went to swim at Solnechnoye in the Gulf of Finland, and ran from the water as three black tornados advanced. We took shelter in a Soviet-era sanatorium with pop music blaring and a round-eyed little boy standing in the doorway and declaring in the Russian language which when spoken by children sounds like a mixture of the ringing of a bell and a fairy tale that it was definitely raining. The elektrichka— suburban rail— was out and we got back to town somehow, first by taxi, then metro, before finally sneaking behind garden walls to her home, laughing.
On quiet summer evenings we would go to the city opera downtown and walk back to the Metro station, along the Neva in the milky radiance of the White Nights, or on evenings when there were no performances we would walk in the neighborhood to Yuntala forest, or to Svetlana’s little flat (where I ate vobla, smoked and dried fish from the Volga, for the first time), or to Lena’s apartment, near where Pushkin’s fatal duel took place in 1837. Lena is one of Petersburg’s great living poets. The walls of her apartment are covered with gilt-framed 19th-century Russian landscapes in oils.
Oksana cooked boiled tongue. She baked pies. Once she presented me with a krestyanskii obed— a peasant dinner— a large, perfectly round, perfectly boiled, absolutely delicious boiled potato. That always seemed to me her special Ukrainian genius, but then she made a mushroom soup from Arkhangelsk in the far north that I can still taste. We went several times to the Datsan, the Tibetan Buddhist temple, and ate buuza— Buryat meatballs— there. Oksana loved the doubled letter u of the name: boooooza.
Life with Oksana became an immersion in the semi-religious passion in Russian culture that is called the Petersburg Theme. When we went to the house-museum of the poet Alexander Blok it was cold and rainy and when I saw his death mask I knelt on the floor and cried. Blok, Mandelstam, Bely, Nabokov, Akhmatova, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Gogol: these people and their books live tangibly in Petersburg. I met living writers and poets and translated them.
Between the annual month or so of real, full life which I spent in Russia—life in Cambridge, Mass. became more and more a filmy, unpleasant, a shallow unreality.
Reversals in life, and personal and family crises, prevented travel, and then the pandemic descended, so I’ve not been back to Russia in nearly five years. When Lena wrote last winter to tell me Oksana had died of coronavirus, I was here, many thousands of miles away on the far side of the planet, so the full shock of her absence has not yet registered. So much of life has gone away like smoke that the loss seems like yet another massive blow of bad news in an absurd world where there is never any good news anymore and everything is lost and none of it makes any sense at all.
I now wonder, what would Oksana have thought of the internecine dispute between post-Soviet Russia and the new, separated country Ukraine? I know that she, like all of Karen’s circle, detested Putin’s repressive policies. There are very many of those. I cannot imagine a person electing to have his country join a dictatorship. But Russia and the Ukraine are not really different countries, and that complicates things.
Many Russians have close relatives in the Ukraine. Much of the Ukraine is Russian-speaking. Kiev is historically called “the Mother of Russian Cities”. Remember “the Great Gate of Kiev” in Modest Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? Millions of Ukrainians and Russians live in each other’s countries. Extreme right-wing Ukrainian nationalism emanates mainly from the western parts of that country, and most people in the great cities, Kiev and Odessa, do not identify with it. And it must be said that Ukrainian nationalist parties were enthusiastic allies of Hitler and participated proactively in the Nazi Holocaust. (Yes, there was a terrible famine during Stalin’s brutal collectivization of agriculture. No, the Jews were not responsible for it.)
All in Karen’s circle missed the sense of togetherness of the Soviet era, when you did not have to cross a border to go drink Georgian wine and eat khinkali in Tbilisi, or attend a scholarly meeting in Erevan, or visit your big, noisy Jewish family in Odessa. And I don’t want to make ideological generalizations here. They are at best imprecise and at worst misleading, and Lena, who is a keen critic, will rightly take me to task for them. But please, let me say this much: the Soviet Union stressed internationalism as a value, and for all the failures and cynical manipulations of that policy, people intermarried— Jews and Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians, etc. Damn it, we were a family. And the fractious family sat at the table together.
I imagine Ksana would have found Ukrainian chauvinism disgusting and depressing, but she would have very much liked the idea of the Ukraine joining the European Union, not as the anti-Russian gesture some proponents want it to be, but as progress towards a free and open world of human contact, a world without frontiers, a world without fear.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose work is ignored everywhere today, in the East and in the West, once wrote an open letter to the government of the USSR. It is worth reading very carefully today. In it, he predicted that the Soviet Union was likely to split up, with most of the fifteen Union Republics— places like the three Baltic states, Armenia and the other Transcaucasian nations, and the so-called “-stans”— going their own way. But Alexander Isayevich begged the Communist leaders to hold together somehow the three huge Slavic nations of the Union: Russia, Belorussia (today’s Belarus), and the Ukraine.
It would only be possible to do this, he said, if the Soviet leaders abandoned force and repression and embraced the traditional values of Orthodox Christianity. Unity might then come through kindness and brotherhood, through an appeal to the shared spiritual and cultural patrimony of the eastern Slavic peoples. Not, that is, through troop movements, incursions, and fear. And Russia itself would have to become more democratic, less internally repressive and externally threatening, for others to want to stick together with it.
In the 1990s, Russia was, for all its massive convulsions, well on the way to that, to becoming an open society. (Let’s not talk about how liberty here in the West was then at the start of its long plummet into the present darkness.) The novelist Nabokov and the poet Brodsky were published in the beloved homeland from which they had been so painfully banished. The churches, synagogues, Buddhist monasteries, and mosques reopened. People traveled freely.
Did the West encourage it? No. Communism was gone, and with it, the declared raison d’être of NATO should have been gone, too. But America replaced Cold War Red-baiting with Russophobia, broke all its promises, and extended NATO into all the Warsaw Pact and the Baltics. The economic shock therapy devised by hired American economic advisors from the Ivy League shattered Russian society. These criminal bandits walked away with millions in consultancy fees, while Russians bereft of jobs and pensions took to drink or suicide and life expectancy plummeted by over ten years. Most Russians obviously and rightly saw this as anti-Communism repurposed as the plain old Russophobia of the British Empire’s Great Game of a century and a half ago. Most opted for a viable life over a free one, and supported Putin. And what is Western freedom these days, anyhow?
So is it any surprise that the project of Western-style civil society in Russia was aborted? Yes, it’s a tragedy, and both sides in the play are behaving admirably. Were they consciously determined to ignite World War III they could scarcely do better.
The Greeks knew this millennia ago. They named and defined tragedy, acted it out in amphitheaters, and discussed it in philosophical treatises, but we never seem to learn. Tragedy happens when larger-than-life heroes incapable of seeing the fatal flaws of character within themselves, particularly hubris (overweening pride), act in such a way that brings their own destruction and inflicts suffering on all around them. They sometimes see and understand what they have done, but only when it is already too late. There is often a character on stage who perceives all this and warns them but is not listened to, because part of hubris is being deaf to wisdom. Aeschylus’ prophetess Cassandra bears Apollo’s curse that she will always tell the truth and nobody will ever believe her. Sophocles introduces as helpless witness the senescent seer of Thebes, Teiresias, whose physical blindness is the crowning irony since he’s the only character in the Oedipus trilogy who can truly see.
Hypocrites, overweeningly proud sleepwalkers, scoundrels, fools— hubristic East and West have not the ears to hear. The Soviets exiled Solzhenitsyn and tried to silence him that way. He lived in the gilded cage of exile: his son Yermolai attended Harvard and Alexander Isayevich was invited there and given an honorary degree. But instead of joining the club and saying what was expected of him, the Russian Cassandra inconveniently told the truth in his address to the well-heeled graduating class and their smug keepers. Thereafter he was canceled, stigmatized as a reactionary, a religious fanatic, confined within a cocoon of silence in the comfortably rural Coventry of his estate in Vermont.
Now we will have to wait and see how the play will unfold. Is this the final act? Britain dispatches arms to the Ukraine, Russia begins maneuvers in Belarus, America withdraws people from the embassy in Kiev and sends troops to Eastern Europe.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” said the British Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of World War I.
Lamps. I remember the tall window of the bedroom in Karen’s apartment, the pale summer midnight light through the birches, the sound of rain, the little yellow lamp by my bed where I lay, deliciously cozy, and read Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris in a Russian translation.
The bedside lamp in Oksana’s guest room amidst piles of books, books in those glass-fronted Eastern European cabinets, books on the upright piano.
Late night mugs of tea. Were our Russian-speaking voices Armenian, Jewish, Ukrainian? No, we are the little night-time lights that shine the same way on one continent as on another, elemental beings not of one culture or another but of humanistic world civilization, this is what we were, how can it be that all this is now in the past? Nobody rages against the dying of the light because the eyes of a sleepwalker are shut. The somnambulist cannot see when he is walking towards a precipice. The tragic hero cannot see, either.
One day Oksana and I were walking near the Sheremetyev palace, in whose Fountain House Akhmatova had lived, had entertained the “Guest from the Future”, Sir Isaiah Berlin. We saw a church neither of us had ever seen before. We went in and the building was empty except for a woman in white who welcomed us and asked me to recite this prayer in Old Slavonic, the liturgical language— which she called the Truth Language— of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Господи Боже, помилуй мя, грешнаго.
“O Lord God, forgive me, a sinner.”
Let the sense of shame bring us to our knees before our Father, who loves us, and will forgive us and save us, even at the brink of disaster. Lord, I ask this in the name of Your servant, Oksana.
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events
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