Tuesday, June 16, 2009

`For Us Culture was Freedom'

Bill Sigler writes in an e-mail:

“I wish I could track down for you an online version of an interview Olga Sedakova has in her book Poems and Elegies. In it she talks eloquently about how the Western cultural heritage that we can't throw away fast enough literally kept her and many others alive in the long winter’s night of the Soviet experiment. It reminded me so much of you when I read it.”

Sedakova’s book, published in 2003 by Bucknell University Press, is available through Google Books, and I think I found the passage Bill refers to. It comes early in her interview with Slava I. Yastremski, one of the editors and translators of the volume:

“I think that in Russia we saw culture very differently than people in Europe and America. For us culture was freedom. We were surrounded by Soviet culture, which can be defined as a counterculture, and when I hear about countercultural movements in the West, where young people saw culture as something repressive and consequently wanted to escape from it, I saw that we perceived culture as our salvation. For us, culture in its broadest historical aspect was that very freedom and height of the spirit denied us by the Soviet system.”

When Bill writes “the Western cultural heritage that we can't throw away fast enough,” I confess I thought first of the high-school students I worked with on Monday (rather than their intellectual enablers). Their ignorance of our inheritance is exceeded only by their eagerness to avoid it. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a soon-to-graduate senior and a staff member. The girl had spent much of the day making a collage of images of under-dressed females clipped from women’s magazines (image a boy working on the same project). With a straight face she described herself as “a conceptual artist,” and told the teacher she might enroll at a nearby community college but was reluctant because she might have to read The Great Gatsby. “I hear ya,” the teacher said.

Of course, kids and teachers don’t come to such conclusions in a cultural vacuum (I say this as a reader immune to the charms of F. Scott Fitzgerald). Generations of institutionalized cultural vandalism have brought us to this point. Another kid whined not because he had to read Romeo and Juliet but because a teacher expected him to watch it on video. Sedakova continues:

“I think that only in a prison like the Soviet Union could you love Dante and Homer the way we loved them – as our personal salvation. Creative culture, which was created by mankind, was something like a religious force for us. We perceived it as the possibility of not simply creative or investigative freedom, but spiritual squalor that surrounded us. That is why our attitude toward culture was opposite to that of our contemporaries in the West.”

In My Century, another survivor of the Communists, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, describes reading of Proust and Machiavelli in one of Stalin’s prisons:

“…the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

Thanks, Bill, for introducing me to Sedakova. That’s how culture works.


Ian Woolcott said...

I was a great watcher of Donohue in the 1980s, when I was a teenager. I recall a particular episode – it was one of those “The Russians Love Their Children Too” kind of shows where they had a studio in the USSR full of Russians and a studio in the US full of Americans and through moderators and translators each group was able to question the other. Two things made a special impression on me: First, that the Russians thought it a foregone conclusion that science had disproven the existence of God; Second, when Phil Donohue asked if there were any places in particular in the US that a Russian might like to visit as a tourist. On the other end, a Russian woman started rattling off American destinations: “The Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Oxford.” “Oxford?” Donohue asked. “Yes, Oxford, Mississippi,” she said. “Why Oxford, Mississippi?” “Because it was the home of Faulkner,” explained the woman, and the whole Russian audience laughed to think that Donohue, an American, didn’t make that connection immediately.

Ciara said...

Beautiful post! Very moving. Thank you so much for both Sedakova's and Wats' words. I'm also learning a lot from your reports on your adventures at the school. Who was it who said that "In the Soviet sphere, nothing is permitted and everything matters. In the West, everything is permitted and nothing matters"? So often your students make me thing of that.

elberry said...

You should have clapped an arm around the pupil and said heavily: "Babe, I hear ya -" then, as they nodded approvingly: "What you want is Spinoza, admit it."

Anonymous said...

The poet Irina Ratushinskaya has much to say along the same lines in her memoir of life in the Soviet Gulag, Grey is the Color of Hope.