My "master" is dead. I am not sure if it had been dead before I was born or after, but grief has always been there. We grieve for the lives which we have never experienced, but to which we still hold a strong attribution. The grip of a dead man.
However, I felt the first breath of a free-fall three years ago. For about a year it was steadily claiming a bigger and bigger area of my vision, like a mountain approaching slowly from the horizon. When I stepped onto its peak the conversion manifested its completion – the connection was lost. Then the grip was released and I kissed good-buy.
Some time ago I was asked :"What nationality do you identify with?" The response was immediate – "I do not.” Of course I used to be. I was(am) Russian, I was(am) an immigrant.
You are welcome to stand on either side of it.
This estrangement has given me a since of responsibility, because it has turned me into the “second pair of eyes” when it comes to contemporary Russian reality. And the healthy evolution from this status would be to become a critic, however I have chosen to become somewhat of a narrator.
I used to say that I needed to reach the peak of rage and experience (or rage-experience), before starting to talk about my motherland, so that I would naturally overflow with it. However I do not require rage anymore. In this case the assumptions are best made from the distance.
The Compulsive Longing for an Empire is (hopefully) a series in both Russian and English Languages that desires to spell out my journey into the post-immigration.
- Is it a critique of the state?
- Is it going mildly (or a bit more) violent?
- Is it a farewell love letter?
- Most certainly yes.
But more importantly – it is a symptoms countdown of the unhealthy longing for an Empire. It aims to give a concrete example of the identity crisis at-large which has lead to a formation of a poltergeist nation of physical bodies, that treat each other like collateral media, whilst absurdly enough, being obsessed with the idea of heritage.
And a bad example is the ultimate heritage.
The 30th of October is a Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions in Russia. Established in 1991 (which is a peculiar coincidence on its own), it is the day that aims to recall the names of those who were eliminated in the many decades following the Russian Revolution of the 1917. Political leaders take turns reading the victim lists at arenas, churches have special liturgies scheduled, public schools host the "lessons of remembrance", whilst pro-Stalinists perform the juggling game of excuses on the background. The usual spectacle of stigma and showcase of scars whilst the members of United Russia (the ruling political party) visit memorial sites. The goal of the day – to firmly nail a single thought into the minds of the nation:"our reality could have been worse".
I am not going to follow the current trend of horrific narration of the Repression years, as I do not wish to feed the prehistoric bloodthirsty beast inside of us that is craving the detailed imagery of terror for pleasure. Instead I am going to take a quick look at the statistics, which can inflict a much more viable fear (without the sadistic thrill).
During the two years of the Great Terror (1936 – 1938) 681692 people were named "the enemy of the regime" and executed by firing squad. A great deal of unaccounted people were killed and buried by other means. The estimated total of politically repressed citizens of the USSR (combining those who died in camps and those executed on the spot) is 28 million people. Historians argue about the accuracy of this estimate, therefore the "state-approved" number is at least 19,3 million. The full statistics and documents were scheduled for public release in 2000, however in 2003 this process was overrun by Vladimir Putin personally and deferred until a yet-to-be-confirmed date.
Who was subjected to repressions:
The first ones on the list were the ideologists of the Communist Party. Then there were "the betrayers of the nation" – 1,4 million people, who managed to flee the country, wandering around Europe and the United States to eventually settle and create a new social class of Ex-Soviet intellectuals in exile. The rest are victims of catastrophic and militarised averaging which later resulted in the birth of "a soviet human".
Of course there were "survivors" – the publicly labelled rejects of the society. Reports to the political police were a popular tool for household revenge and these kinds of prisoners were savoured by the system with delight. As of the 30th of October 2017, there are currently 800000 people living in Russia who were born in gulags and spend their childhood as politically repressed prisoners.
There are two terms that I would like to bring to your attention in this context:
Exilliteratur - (noun, German) Literature in exile. A term referring to German thinkers who escaped the Nazi regime and their cultural heritage. This word has since become a part of History of the 20th century.
Инакомыслящий (noun, Russian) - literally "otherwise minded", an intellectually deviant person. This word was commonly used to refer to the educated classes who either fled the USSR or were non conferment to socially-proclaimed norms of submission to the myth of Soviet ideology. This term is still widely utilised, or as I prefer to call it "alive".
According to official statistics from RosStat (the Russian Federal State Statistics Service) Russian citizens are actively leaving the country, with numbers hitting 350000 in 2015. Some sources claim that because of the change in calculation algorithms, the real numbers are in fact significantly higher.
Please note that these calculations do not include international students, political refugees or temporary work immigrants, only those who have immigrated permanently.
- young families with small children;
- tech and IT professionals;
- people with diplomas in Economics, Analytics and IT;
- Creative entrepreneurs: architects, designers, writers, journalists and artists.
1 050 000 people have left Russian Federation to settle elsewhere between 2012 to 2015, (RosStat, www.gks.ru).
In the meantime, the remaining citizens are being devoured by their daily survival. A great variety of religious organisations bloom wildly, longing for the higher acknowledgement of their extremist harvest. "Traditional" family values are having a violent and far-reaching comeback.
The politics of obtaining and holding on to power at all costs is being retranslated down the hierarchy line. "The new survivors" are the shapeshifters who emerge from underneath the crumbs of values and outlived social systems. "Securing a position" is the brightest accessible future – the pinnacle.
Shanghai is one of those places that you start archiving before you even left it, because it is extremely hard to perceive. You recall every passing moment after it happened, slightly pinching your brain to check if you are in the real. It is a trick that hyper-urbanism and hyper-pollution play on your jet-lagged mind - it feels like a theatre and tastes like an illness. Upon leaving you realise that it could have possibly been the most honest experience you have ever had. The honesty of aliens and observers, the both tribes bound by solidarity but disjointed by action with an almost religious mutual respect.
(Do you remember the last time you've been to the cinema, where the film was not extremely engaging? You are sitting there surrounded by your insides turned outdoors - walking among your thoughts as a way to spend your waiting time. In the midst of the watching crowd the most mundane subjects become very intimate and you realise the greatness of their influence. And then all of a sudden awakening occurs and covers you with a desperation wave.)
I recall the darkness, which was almost infinite, perhaps because I really struggled to keep myself awake. I did not want to eat or drink, just to close my eyes and let the time take action around my unconscious yet aware body.
I recall the chaos which looked as natural as the flow of the river which also belongs to this humming rhythm. It is a city with a special kind of silence, without the numbness that usually accompanies it in Europe.I recall time taking me places where I performed actions and gave answers which upon current examination seem completely against my "normal", controlled self. I almost inhabited a role to which I cannot find a name other than of a Kafquesque Surveyor. The experiences turned into waiting and waiting into experiences as I was observing the city pass behind the windshield of a bus.
(I love taking trains, because of the unconditional amount of time they gift to a thinking traveller. Gliding above the gravel beneath the train tracks - it is a meditation the aim of which is to come up with decisions.)
I recall that upon the 3rd day my mind felt completely at ease, as if I had always been surrounded by smog and its ashy condensate on the city plants. I was breathing in the visual space and storing these breaths inside my inner archive, which later helped me navigate around the city streets. Having bathed in electric noise I laid in the bed of the city realising the joy of blinking moment turned into a longitude of present.
(Smells are a key to a successful archive. I have a perfume for Belgrade and a tea for the Russian taiga, a brand of cigarettes for my father and a hand cream for London. But Shanghai smelled very distinctly - like home, or at least an archived memory of it. The ashy powderiness of dirty snow pushed to the sides of Moscow Ring Roads and the dryness from thermoelectric power stations. Except Shanghai had a much warmer uniform body, like an ancient library. The kind of archive that develops its own behaviour.)
I did not bring souvenirs and I postponed developing the films from that trip until this very moment (which is 2 months later). I met people and brought them back to London in a form of WeChat threads. Even though I was asleep more hours than I can normally afford, it allowed for well-remembered awakenings.
I say – I would love to come back - when asked, but some myths are best kept undisturbed, like the one of the scent of homeland and of people-turned-ruins.
On another dip I shall not float up.