Reasons not to be a Russophobe: Part Three

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Geneviève Piron


III

Adding to the Archive

In the Alexandrov Museum, they’re getting ready for the evening’s festivities. A young woman from here who married a top chef from France and lives in Paris was passing through town yesterday evening, and she promised to help with filing the documents. She speaks French perfectly, laughing as she tells us about her streak of bad luck with French bureaucracy. She is at home here: we’re in the provinces, but the world is here too. We are served some very bad alcohol, but the mood is already very relaxed behind the table where our partners welcome us. The table is covered with a waxed tablecloth, and Butterbroten with ham are piled generously on the plates that circulate around us. The building still is in need of restoration, but the female museum volunteers—small, serene women—are feeding cats who seem to have made this their home. One of the cats, thin and black, slips discretely between the two heavy doors of this monument to history, a building that the Soviet era froze outside of time, covering the natural curves and irregularites of its stone in a heavy, smooth, universal green paint.

The Museum’s great hall—a stable during the seventeenth century—has been readied for a public reception. It is full. On the stage are musicians, two female vocalists, and the children’s choir from Zagorsk, a famous monastery between Moscow and Alexandrov. The sound of voices, of doors slamming, drafts of air—a harpsicord is being delivered. Lev doesn’t do things halfway: he has organized a concert of baroque music to celebrate the donation of the documents. We are seated close by: the foreigners, distinguished guests (more friends than guests, we sense), next to a representative from the Swiss embassy—an unpretentious, charming woman. The concert will be accompanied by musical history commentary by one of the vocalists. Applause bursts out.

The children’s voices are stirring. The female vocalists are precise, their cadence delicate—as is so often true in Russia. The timbre of their voices is rich and deep. The audience is exceptionally warm and curious; they are music-lovers.

The time has come for speeches. What will happen next?

The museum director’s private office is packed with objects—paintings, presents, and books left open, wherever they happened to be put. Earlier that evening, as I hopped on one foot pulling on my pantyhose, trying mainly not to cover my feet with the thick layer of dust, I was wondering to myself about how foreigners might be viewed here today. Are we seen as charming souls, sure, but also naïve—completely out-of-touch with the daily reality of a nation grappling with domestic difficulties? I’d often sensed (from hints, not words, since such things can’t be admitted) that people in this country resent dissidents—for trying to escape, or for putting themselves in the limelight. Whereas, back in the shadows, the Soviet people were simply surviving, often compromised, at times saintly, yet always invisible.

Stacks of documents, neatly wrapped in brown paper, were presented to Lev after the end of the concert. As he feels their weight in his hands, the emotion that grips him is evident. He begins his speech—turning first, without a word, to the Swiss seated next to him, thanking them. He then addresses the audience. Their attention focused by the music, they listen in total silence.

“People of Alexandrov. As we were living out our small lives, thousands of kilometers from us, in a blessed country where they had everything necessary for happiness, there were people not indifferent to the fate of those who suffer and struggle and who went gone out of their way to help. Here are those people! what can we say to thank them?”

 He turns towards us, choking down a sob.

“They have left aside their daily activities and comfortable lives in order to write, to assemble, to pen entreatries, to move heaven and earth, to give voice to those who have no voice—and here is what remains of their ceaseless efforts, deployed over years, so that Anatoly Marchenko—someone completely unknown to them—would not be lost to history. And all of those efforts are now compiled here today.”

He begins to cry, and we too are moved. Outside, night has again fallen on the roads full of potholes, the stray dogs have surely started to wander and howl, the windows of the Research Institute are still dark, and the Tsvetaeva Museum addition remains a construction site. Yet in the air around us we feel something moving, some that lifts into the air, a current stirring, it is the course of history that ties these people together, above any individual objects, above accidents of all kinds. People are smiling, their eyes shine. They remember their spiritual heroes, those who never let down their guard, and they are moved to find that, from beyond their borders, the actions of these heroes are known, that they have received recognition, caused brotherhood to live and to conquer, and that such solidarity has been the work of people, people like them, people who are with them today. They feel—as these facts evoked—acknowledged. They feel hope. And suddenly, transported by enthusiasm, Lev takes flight as well; his voice gains greater strength, coming from deep within:

“People of Alexandrov, I know you, I know who you are, I know your goodness. You are welcome itself, hospitality itself. When prisoners came out from the camps, from prisons, or from confinement, and they arrived here—starving, brutalized, barbarous, you are the ones who brought them in. You opened your doors, you offered them food, and it was at your tables that they began to feel they had become human again. You are the ones who did this—you gave life back to them, you gave their lives back to society, and you did this asking for nothing in return, silently and naturally, you and no one else.”

He catches his breath.

 “And today, people of Alexandrov, others are suffering. They have been forced on a journey, along with their families; others in distress have been reduced to leaving their homes behind, becoming nomads. I’m speaking of the Syrian refugees. We must open our doors, people of Alexandrov, we must once again give the best of ourselves, we must offer our hospitality.”

His speech is received with feeling, a number of women are crying, everyone applauds.    

When it comes right down to it, I don’t know what these people were feeling, nor do I know precisely in what state Russian populism is these days. What I do know is that these documents were delivered, that the memory they hold has not been lost, and that these words were spoken, on a dark night of November, in Alexandrov, a small provincial town with a shaky economy, at roughly one hundred kilometers from Moscow.

           

Geneviève Piron directs the Smith College Program in Geneva; she is the author of Léon Chestov, philosophe du déracinement (L'Age d'Homme, 2010) and L'utopie au quotidien: La vie ordinaire en URSS 1953-1985

Translated from French by Jim Hicks