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14 March, 2011  ▪  Katerina Barabash

The Land of the Nebbish

Russians have never been a free people. From time to time they simply changed masters

150  years ago, on February 19, 1861, Alexander II of Russia signed the Manifesto on the Abolition of Serfdom. From that day on, freedom began ticking away, the same freedom that the inimitable Chekhovian Fierce called “a disaster.”

The longer I live, the stronger I feel that every time I step out onto the street, I enter the battle “for our and your freedom.” Every step I take towards my destination is an attempt to win back a small slice of my territory. But the longer this battle continues, the more obvious it becomes: people not only don’t want to give me a piece of my and only my territory—they don’t even know what it is. They wonder and take offence when I don’t want to let outsiders onto my territory.

I stopped taking the Moscow Metro long ago. Not because—or not only because—it’s sizzling in the summer and frigid in the winter and filled with drunken bums who stink to high heaven. But…I enter a car and see dozens of eyes, dumbly and mechanically directed towards my person. Not because I am unusually pretty or because my zipper’s down or something. These people don’t really see me. They’re just staring. That’s the way it is. They’ll glance at you and then turn away: you’re part of this temporary collective. As your station draws near, you move towards the exit. “Lady, you getting off??” looms from behind you, always in a displeased tone, from a fellow passenger planning to get off who, just for good measure, pokes you between the shoulder blades with an index finger. You shrug your back, trying to get away from that finger. “Don’t touch me, ok?” And then a tone of insult combined with injury: “Whaaat? Can’t I???? Oh, beeeeeg your paaaaardon…”

Building socialism on your own was impossible. Only in a mass, only in a herd, shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand. The only way to get to that bright future was in groups with a tour guide. The plainclothes tour guides made sure that no free zones appeared among people—that could lead to undesirable thoughts and wishes.

That is the real reason why people here are so afraid of space, why any leeway scares them: what if it expands? what if I find myself alone? and then there won’t be any bright future for me. And because we are so afraid of unfilled, undesignated space, all public areas in Russia are filled with blasting music. After all, silence sometimes gives birth to thought. And what the heck do we need that for?

In Russia, a person was never considered a real person. A stinking peasant, a serf, from time immemorial until 1861. A member of the collective, a komsomol or communist, carrying out the missions of the great Lenin or Stalin after 1917. Between these two epochs was a mere 50 years. Then 70 more years, a brief entr’acte, and once again the country hears the sound of screws being tightened. The people simply exchange masters, the way their ancestors were once allowed to do on St. George’s Day.

The Russian has never been free. Russians are not used to being listened to, and are themselves not good at listening to others. They’re used to loud, derogatory tones and, as soon as such an opportunity arose, they began to pay back the world in the same coin. For many centuries, Russia, with its 90% serf population, was held in terror. Humiliation breeds humiliation. Only a free individual can respect the freedom of another. But that free individual cannot come out of nowhere, having never lived, having gone immediately from being a serf to being a comrade.

Once in a while, the serf is allowed to come closer to the master’s rooms-to become a lackey. How common those diminutive, affectionate suffixes have become in Russia in recent years! In the store, you are offered a little “blousekin” to buy, the cashier will make your day with a “receiptlet,” the doctor asks you to please open your little “eyesies,” the insurance agent wants you to buy a tiny “policiette,” and, of course, they’re all ever-so pleased to give you a teeny-tiny discount. Most understand this baby-talk as a form of courtesy. Lackeys do not understand true, internal courtesy, which has no need of “-kins” or “-lets.” In the primitive, servile imagination, the highest form of gallantry is “His lordship has deigned to taste a drop of vodka in his study.”

Being unfree is a genetic habit of Russians. It is the mother of all our flaws, as it destroys any glimmer of self-worth with a hot iron. Russian masochism is charming in its reliability and pride, which has passed itself off as Christian humility for many centuries. Serfs love to hang onto the neck of serfs like them, only bolder ones, and call them their national leaders—often in pairs, in tandem—, at the same time hating with passionate jealousy any outsiders. Serfdom is indeed insufferable, doomed by its very nature to see the world divided into so many identical cells, much like a honeycomb. Any other shape of eye, other way of thinking, other religion, other culture, other language—all that is “other” is immediately degenerate and should be whipped. Xenophobia and chauvinism are the favorite offspring of serfs, while the “strong hand” is their beloved mother. That’s why you will see so many people, even young people, at pro-Stalin rallies in Russia today. This Administration realized that a long time ago, when it had not yet come to power…

Poor, poor Fierce…they’ve forgotten the old man, but he knew what he was talking about.


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