Profound Reading Experience

I started reading Stanislav Aseyev’s book In Isolation out of a sense of duty. He’s a Ukrainian writer from the Donbas (a region that has been occupied by the Russians for 8 years), a hero of Ukrainian resistance, and he has been translated into English. How can I not support him through something as small as a purchase of the book?

The reading of the book, however, became a very profound experience. I can only read it in small portions because every short chapter is like a session with a psychoanalyst. This writer looks into the depths of my soul and understands me the way I have never been understood. Here, for instance, is a quote from a chapter that blew my mind:

In a regular civil society, people’s minds are usually troubled by issues such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, corruption in government, and the freedom and effectiveness of the press. Some might see these topics as overblown, while others can barely have a cup of coffee without catching up on the latest news. But none of these matters trouble people’s minds in the Donbas. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always heard, “We don’t make the decisions.” All we could do was think about the price of butter or how expensive potatoes had become, while the powers-that-be had already decided everything for us. My friends, have you never stopped to think why this is so, why people whose strength of character and will enables them to descend half a mile below the surface of the earth while under artillery fire are so indifferent and apathetic to their own fate?

Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation

Aseyev is talking about the coal miners in the Donbas but I had the same experience with my fellow college students in Kharkiv in the 1990s. Their indifference to absolutely everything except slavish, meaningless toil on the dusty, grimy plots of land they called dachas was complete. We were 18, 19, 20 years old. I’d try to talk about boys, music, politics, TV shows, celebrity gossip but all I got were blank stares. Tired, indifferent looks that only got animated when my friends shared how much they had slaved at their stupid dachas over the weekend. The point of pride was not the profit they derived from the dachas (there was none) but the suffering they experienced in the struggle with them.

And here is Aseyev, talking about the same thing:

This is the very essence of the psychology of the people of the Donbas, for whom ideals like freedom and equality always came down to the choice of rope for their own noose. The mentality of a person who works 12 hours a day in very harsh conditions for a monthly paycheck of between $100 and $130 turns into something that might be called masochistic, cursing this way of living and at the same time unable to imagine an existence outside of it.

Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation

Aseyev compares this attitude of resentful hostility to that of the liberated serfs in 1861. I left the Ukraine that was almost invariably like this in 1998 because I couldn’t abide this life in the world of the living dead anymore. Since then, the rest of Ukraine somehow moved to normalcy but the Donbas got stuck behind. I see this in the attitudes of my cousins who are in their thirties and who can’t be moved to adopting any strategy beyond resentful indifference interspersed with angry demands for money even in the midst of a war.

I’ve tried to explain this to people for years. “But are the residents of the Donbas for Russia? Or are they for Ukraine? What do they want?” people ask. And. . . it’s just not like that. On the pages of Aseyev’s book I find the dead, indifferent Ukraine that I left in 1998 and that still exists in the Donbas.

10 thoughts on “Profound Reading Experience

  1. “for whom ideals like freedom and equality always came down to the choice of rope for their own noose”

    It may also derive from the historical and family memory of communism, using endless talk of various ideals to hide the fact of empty shop shelves, so that a usual American supermarket seemed like another world to visiting Boris Yeltsin.

    Which noose should one choose indeed between the last horrible tsar and rising bolsheviks? Please, don’t say democratic forces since those people lacked both will and ability to lead the country. O/w, they would’ve stayed in power.

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    1. My cousins in Donetsk shipped off their old mom to Donetsk to work in a fish factory and send back the money because they don’t like working. Every day when I was in Canada right now I heard them berating her for not sending enough. The contrast between them and me and my sister who took over all the funeral expenses, all of our mother’s affairs couldn’t be any stronger. We are from the same family but we could be from different planets. I have no idea what needs to happen for me to farm out my mom to work harsh menial labor instead of going myself. Even just watching it is heartbreaking. And it’s not recent. It’s been going on for years. They took her apartment, threw her out. She made money for a new small apartment, so they robbed her. My aunt came to visit. They stole her card and emptied it. Just like that.

      Their historical memory is the same as mine but I started making money at 14 and never stopped.

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      1. My family is neither like theirs not like yours since I started making money after 24.
        Think it’s a personal family dysfunction more than anything that you cast on all Donbas people.
        We knew people in Donbas and still are sort of aware of several there, and their children don’t behave the way you describe. For instance, old parents stay in their flat in Donbas, while their son left the area and works somewhere.

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      2. “I heard them berating her for not sending enough”

        What’s her pay off? This type of dysfunctional relationship only happens when both sides are getting something…. what does she get?

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        1. She feels needed, I guess. You should see the glee with which she and my other aunt from the Donbas engage in completely useless and very taxing physical labor. They have been like this their whole lives, and they always called us lazy because we don’t do this kind of stuff. I’m not going to chop mountains of wood. If I need wood, I’ll buy it. Or, honestly, have a man do it. But with my aunt, it’s the opposite. She chops wood while her husband sits there, giving orders.

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  2. Another reason is that those people are unable to do much right now and could not do much in 2014 either. Were Donbas coal miners supposed to fight off Russia single-handedly, while Ukrainian armed forces did nothing in 2014? Ukraine’s army does not have it that easy even now, after all 8 (!) years of preparation and with great Western support. When one feels helpless, it’s easier to accept life as it is.

    The last thing is the lack of Ukrainian nationalism among many Donbas residents. We never had Ukrainian nationalism in my FSU-Jewish family. My relatives always thought living in Russia was better, and, while feeling connection to Soviet motherland, were not feeling it to the nation state of Ukraine with its foreign to us language and culture. To be honest, never seen any Ukrainian culture around me, except Ukrainian language and literature lessons at school.

    Many people in Donbass are not ethnically Ukrainian. Were Russia a normal country, it would’ve been completely natural for Donbas Russians and Jews to prefer living in Russia and not in a small nation state of another nation.

    Many people surely perceived FSU as their home, so when Ukraine suddenly appeared on the map, the land / country shifted under their feet. They became foreigners w/o moving one metre.

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  3. Found what looks like a potentially interesting new author and wanted to share:

    The Future of Nostalgia Paperback – March 28, 2002
    by Svetlana Boym (Author)

    Can one be nostalgic for the home one never had? Why is it that the age of globalization is accompanied by a no less global epidemic of nostalgia? Can we know what we are nostalgic for? In the seventeenth century, Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a trek through the Alps would cure nostalgia. In 1733 a Russian commander, disgusted with the debilitating homesickness rampant among his troops, buried a soldier alive as a deterrent to nostalgia. In her new book, Svetlana Boym develops a comprehensive approach to this elusive ailment. Combining personal memoir, philosophical essay, and historical analysis, Boym explores the spaces of collective nostalgia that connect national biography and personal self-fashioning in the twenty-first century. She guides us through the ruins and construction sites of post-communist cities — St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, and Prague-and the imagined homelands of exiles-Benjamin, Nabokov, Mandelstam, and Brodsky. From Jurassic Park to the Totalitarian Sculpture Garden, from love letters on Kafka’s grave to conversations with Hitler’s impersonator, Boym unravels the threads of this global epidemic of longing and its antidotes.

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  4. The author is described thus:

    “Svetlana Boym was a writer and Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard. She is the author of Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia and Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet, as well as of short stories, plays, and a novel.”

    The most interesting book of hers which I would love to read is (do you know any other good books on this topic?):

    Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea Paperback – Illustrated, April 30, 2012

    The word “freedom” is so overly used—and frequently abused—that it is always in danger of becoming nothing but a cliché. In Another Freedom, Svetlana Boym offers us a refreshing new portrait of the age-old concept. Exploring the rich cross-cultural history of the idea of freedom, from its origins in ancient Greece to the present day, she argues that our attempts to imagine freedom should occupy the space of not only “what is” but also “what if.” Beginning with notions of sacrifice and the emergence of a public sphere for politics and art, Boym expands her account to include the relationships between freedom and liberation, modernity and terror, and political dissent and creative estrangement. While depicting a world of differences, she affirms lasting solidarities based on the commitment to the passionate thinking that reflections on freedom require. To do so, Boym assembles a remarkable cast of characters: Aeschylus and Euripides, Kafka and Mandelstam, Arendt and Heidegger, and a virtual encounter between Dostoevsky and Marx on the streets of Paris.

    By offering a fresh look at the strange history of this idea, Another Freedom delivers a nuanced portrait of freedom, one whose repercussions will be felt well into the future.

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