Death is a Master from Russia
The following essay by Igor Pomerantsev was brought first to the attention of the editors of The Oxonian, published on 10.8.2022 by the translator Kate Tsurkan, who, along with her colleagues, has been working to place Ukranian authors in English-language outlets. The essay was translated from Russian by Frank Williams.
Next to the microphone in the studio I have a liter bottle of water and next to that a pack of tissues. Refugees’ stories are very much alike: explosions, lifts not working, running down from the fourteenth floor to the cellar, then climbing back up fourteen floors to a two-room apartment after the all-clear siren. The mayhem of the crowds at the station, like in old war movies; children who have lost their parents; dogs straining at the leash; 72-hour train journeys to the Polish or Romanian border; sympathetic volunteers; a foreign, but welcoming, land. This is the first time many of the refugees have experienced being abroad; until the war they had neither the time nor the money.
I feel like an X-ray operator working without a lead apron or a protective screen. Every day I am exposed to a dose of grief. My ‘corridor’ is enormous, covering a quarter of Europe. It’s like a painting of a biblical subject: women and infants wander along a corridor. The men have stayed to fight. In one hand, the women carry three shopping bags containing the remnants of their old lives, while with the other they clutch a boy or a girl. The children have tears and snot smeared across their cheeks and a shoe box under their arm, containing a kitten or a puppy.
These Ukrainians are not the first refugees in my life. In 1999, I reported for Radio Liberty from the Albanian-Yugoslav border. I stood at an Albanian border post, and a huge crowd of Kosovar refugees moved towards me. They were grim-faced and silent as they came, but as soon as they crossed the border they began to lament. It was like a Greek tragedy and the thought sprang to mind that the ancient Greeks did not invent catharsis; they simply recorded what they observed.
The fizz and crackle on shortwave are ideal sounds for radio: they do not have to be translated into anybody’s language. I must have listened to and broadcasted around fifty of their stories and half a liter of tears. I also have my own story. It is half a century old now, but has lost none of its freshness. It is also about violence, and the source of the violence is the same as today: my native land. In 1976, I was arrested for having read ‘forbidden books’. They did not stick needles under my fingernails, nor did they urinate on my face. But they threatened me: ‘You will be sent to the camps. We do not control everything that happens there, I regret to say.’ A Soviet of my generation knew what they meant: Once in the camp I would be assigned to ‘the chocolate factory’, used as ‘a prison bitch’. That is my story.
* * *
It is like a well-worn joke you have heard dozens of times, or a crummy thriller you adored when you were a child, but it is true. When the KGB came with an arrest warrant at dawn, and your mother, husband, wife, or maybe even you asked sleepily, ‘Who’s there?’ very often the reply was ‘Telegram!’ You grumbled under your breath, drowsy, trying to do things in a way so you could slip back into your warm bed, back into sleep, ‘Just a moment!’ pulling on whatever came to hand, feeling in your pocket for change, and you opened the door. Strangely enough, what hurt the most was not that they had come for you, and not even that they had woken you so early, but that you fell for it when they said ‘Telegram!’ and you believed them, like some kid, and now you were stupidly gripping a coin in your hot, sweaty hand, wanting to weep with frustration.
And what were those postal heralds of misfortune, those postal falcons of fear, thinking at moments like that? Wouldn’t they have steeled themselves for the encounter, gotten themselves all psyched up? Once, when I was in fifth grade, I went to the gym to cheer on my big brother in a judo competition. I was amazed by how the trainer kept yelling and screaming, ‘Kill him, Valka, kill him!’ Valka was my brother. ‘Him’ was the other kid. The newspaper term for this kind of outburst from a trainer, teacher, or mentor was utterly bland and respectable: ‘sporting zeal’. But I took his words quite literally. I wanted to jump up and shout to Valka, ‘Don’t listen, don’t kill him!’
The KGB men were surely also pumped up with professional zeal. Otherwise, it seems to me, they wouldn’t have been able to come at dawn with evil intent for a person innocently sleeping. Incidentally, they have an instinctive, deep-rooted dislike of being referred to as KGB. Why they should balk at a word that is purely official and professional is beyond me, yet they prefer to call themselves ‘Chekists’, after the first, bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.
This blood-spattered, tear-stained word strikes them as somehow more heroic and romantic, though heroism and romance are what they lack most. Dammit! What kind of romance can there be in eavesdropping on telephone conversations, reading denunciations or private letters, studying forms, leafing through forbidden publications in the line of duty, enduring departmental and party briefings, writing stories for the wall newspaper, recruiting informers, being afraid of the boss, listening to Voice of America late at night, playing the part of an intelligent and worthy parent and, last but not least, arresting and interrogating people who, for the most part, make no secret of the fact that they do not share the official ideology?
By and large, there was not even a hint of an investigation, of Sherlock Holmes at work, in these arrests. It was the law of the gun. They could simply arrest a person who was different to them, someone who did not even bother to conceal that they were different. Their job. Their duty. Monotonous. With a nasty whiff to it. They pushed papers, twiddled their thumbs, like every other Soviet bureaucrat.
In September 1976, I was interrogated for six days in a row by a major and a lieutenant colonel of the Kyiv KGB. Whenever the lieutenant colonel left the room, the major lost all interest in me, burying himself in chess puzzles, chewing the end of his pencil as he worried away at them. This was not a cunning ruse, some subtle psychological game to wear down a suspect. The major was killing time, whiling away his working day, like millions of his fellow Soviets. Even so, throughout those six days, the feeling never left me, not for one single moment, that my well-informed interrogators, these sleek middle-aged men, who had a certain sense of humor, moderately sophisticated, moderately well-educated, were a mortal danger to me, to the people I loved, to people I knew and did not know, to all people in general.
This feeling was not born of panic or impulse. No. I simply saw that the men sitting in front of me had absolutely no personal ethics, no understanding of good and evil. These men had no idea there might be an action that they could not carry out. Perhaps they were oblivious to the fact that every human action is inevitably measured against and associated with honor and decency. These people were guided by some invented professional ethics, which somehow gave them the right to engage in sordid and despicable activities: snooping and listening in on private conversations, recording their targets’ lovemaking so as to blackmail them later, deciding which books their fellow Soviets could read and which they could not.
My heart sank at the thought of any of the people I loved being brought before these men, who would carry out any instruction, any order. There was something insane about them, despite the exactness and logic of their questioning, the ordinariness of their faces and uniforms, despite their looking so typical, normal, mundane.
The major and the lieutenant colonel must be dead by now, gone to the barbed wire enclosure in the sky. But their children and grandchildren are back in Ukraine, driving tanks or flying bombers. They came back at dawn, without knocking at the door, without pretending they were bringing a telegram.
* * *
The day before the Russian invasion, 23 February, some friends from the Kyiv Intellectuals’ Club suggested I make an appeal to Ukraine, to Ukrainians. I am not a statesman, nor am I a political figure. Nor any other kind of figure. I am a writer. I do not keep a voice in reserve for the country or the nation. What I do have in Ukraine is people, friends with whom I correspond and meet, whom I love. I appeal to Oksana and Sashko, Slava and Zhenia, Bronislav, Liudmyla, Borys, Valentyn, Andrii, Yurii and Nina, Taras and Yurii, Ihor, Valerii, Irina and Yevhenii, Tamara, Iryna, Larysa, Mark and Alla, Diana, Oksana, Iosif, Mykola, Viktoria, Yurii, Svetlana, Katra, Ia, Iryna, Taras, Anastasiia, Myroslav and Daniylo, Rostislav and Oksana, Olga, Zoltan, Sonya, Hanna, Serhii, Lidiia, Dmytro, Liusia and Borys, Tetiana, Anna, Roksalana, Marta. And that is not the complete list by any means.
‘Independence’ is a sacred word for Ukraine. But what makes me happy is our dependence on each other. It is a marvelous kind of dependence. We are people with one nervous system and one bloodstream. Recently, I wrote a poem about Kyiv, frontline Kyiv. I have written in Russian my whole life. Poetry is an intimate relationship with language, and up to now I have always lacked the courage to write in Ukrainian. But this time I decided to translate my poem into Ukrainian. It was my declaration of love to the language:
The station was, I think, Kyiv
We were sitting on suitcases, bags,
with a whole lot of others: families
or singles. Children were playing
games on their mobiles,
the adults played grandmother’s footsteps,
hide and seek, tag.
The ticket booths were open,
the clerks ready and waiting,
their lipstick fresh.
I knew their names already:
But nobody was buying,
They were waiting for news.
That would decide where
they would buy a ticket:
if Kharkiv was the target, then the Carpathians,
if Kherson, then Chernihiv,
and if Kyiv was bombed, well,
then it would be down into the caves and the catacombs,
the mole tunnels,
the underground city of termites.
My intellectual, learned, refined, fragile friends! You do not have any white flags tucked away in reserve. You do not want to shoot, you do not know how, but you do know how to love, and so you will come through.
* * *
Thank you, Karl Jaspers, for discovering the term Grenzsituation, or limit situation. Let us expand its limits. A nation may be confronted by threats to its existence and by mortal danger, just as much as a person may. We are witnesses to how heroically Ukraine’s body is fighting for life. For a writer the limit situation extends over the territory of language and languages. Being a writer presumes extreme intimacy with language. Death is also an extreme. Where does the boundary run between one language and its neighbors? Can one language be a threat to another? This is a rhetorical question. Of course it can. There are examples in plenty: it can kill by any means possible, by love even.
There is a curious episode in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: a conversation between the protagonist Stephen and his English dean of studies about the meaning of words. They begin with an innocent discussion of the difference between funnel and tundish. Later Stephen admits to himself that English belongs first to the dean, and only later to him, the Irishman. For Stephen, English will always be something obtained. ‘The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.’ In the novel’s finale, Stephen comes to the conclusion that the Irish version of English is a borrowed language, and he decides to use it as an instrument to express the soul of an Ireland that has been taken prisoner.
I recalled this episode from Joyce’s novel when I read an essay by my son Peter, who is a British writer. It expressed an idea I found unexpected; that when he writes in English he feels the burden of guilt and responsibility of Empire and is ready to bear that burden.
Joyce is warm. Peter is hot. All my conscious life before emigrating to the West was spent in Ukraine. I spent it there, and left it there. Nevertheless, Russian was always my mother tongue. War is a limit situation not only for the carriers of a language, but also for the language itself. The killing of a nation is at the same time the killing of a language.
I am a writer and I love my mother tongue. Today my love is still valid, but it has become difficult, dramatic. Evil is polyglot. It speaks hundreds of different languages. It has its favorites, though. One might even say mother tongues. The German poet Paul Celan—he and I both lived in the same Ukrainian city, Chernivtsi (Czernowitz)—wrote a classic poem about evil. It is called Death Fugue. A key line in it is ‘Death is a master from Germany.’ Today, death has a new uniform and ID patches. Now death is a master from Russia, and I am bound to it by language. In my barn, there is a heap of rakes to step on, but no white flags. Nor will there be.
P.S. In Joyce’s last novel Finnegan’s Wake there are borrowings from 70 languages. The stubborn Irishman did not give way.
* * *
In mid-February 2022, the Russian ambassador to Sweden said in an interview with Aftonbladet newspaper: ‘Excuse my language, but we don’t give a shit about Western sanctions.’ Personally, I do not excuse him because an ambassador should always use diplomatic language, and if he does not, he is no diplomat but a shit-shoveler. In 1995, during the first Chechen war, I interviewed a refugee from Grozny called Fatima. I asked her the question all interviewers ask: ‘What made the biggest impression on you? Tanks? Bombs?’ She thought for a moment, then said, a little embarrassed, ‘The Russian soldiers came into our houses, which we’d abandoned, and… shat in our beds. Yes, they shat, covered it with a blanket, shat again and covered the lot with pillows. We couldn’t believe it.’ In March 2022, when I asked Natalka, a refugee from near Chernihiv, what surprised her most when the Russians came, she replied, ‘They took over our houses and shat in the beds.’
Those Russian soldiers who shat in Chechnya were either killed, or went home shellshocked, or died peacefully in their beds. Their sons or grandsons came to Ukraine and repeated exactly what their fathers or grandfathers had taught them. The list of war crimes does not include the item ‘relieving oneself in the beds of citizens of an occupied state’. Such behavior will not come before the International Court of Justice. But the stench will hang around. For a very long time. Ecologists will have plenty to keep them busy.
* * *
He was a refugee in his late sixties, a historian. I asked him to tell me what being evacuated was like. I explained my podcast was called Humanitarian Corridor. He was happy to take part. My questions were simple: when had he evacuated, where from, had he experienced shelling, bombing, where and how he had crossed the border from Ukraine, how had he ended up in Prague? He did not answer any of them. He spoke only about what mattered to him: the history of medicine and the president of Russia.
‘So there you have it. Straitjackets came in 200-odd years ago. Of course, in a way you might regard it as progress; more humane than shackles or leg irons. They’d wrap you up in a shirt with long sleeves and off you go, take a walk in the exercise yard, breathe in fresh air. How long were the sleeves? Depended: from four to seven meters. They tied the ends of the sleeves together with cord.
And if the patient became violent, he or she would be gagged and bound, have a bag put over his or her head. The walls of the isolation unit, or bunker, were lined with mattresses. Also, they sometimes used jackets with tape fasteners and a belt, a bit like a judo tunic. Today, though, we use restraints with magnetic fasteners instead of straitjackets. Wrist straps as well, but you have to be careful which kind of leather they’re made of; too stiff and it will rub the skin raw, while the soft type is more expensive and harder to work with. Yes, and I almost forgot, “goose feet” made of sheets have proved very effective and “envelopes”, also using bedsheets, five or six, not more. There can be problems: for instance, there are conflicts between medics and human rights activists. The medics can get hurt, by being scratched or bitten, especially paramedics in emergency vehicles. The activists accuse the medics of brutality. In addition to that, there is the “chemical straitjacket”, but that’s a metaphor. It’s how we refer to medications, neuroleptics. When does this go on the site? Will people be able to hear it? Will they understand what I mean and who it’s about?’
* * *
On the ninth day of the war, around 100,000 demonstrators gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague. Many, very many students among them. It is said that family memory is a myth. But myth is a part of life, is it not? Their mothers and fathers had told them what country sent the tanks that entered Prague in August 1968. A beggar, a flag the color of the sky and wheat draped across his shoulders, squatted on the curb below the monument to St. Wenceslas. The beggar was muttering in a Czech accent, ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Ukraine!’ That was the moment he struck gold.
* * *
‘You know, Igor, just between ourselves. Is the microphone switched off? I will tell you the truth, because I know you so well, or at least I know your voice so well. This war has saved me. Besides my wife, I have two mistresses, and I was absolutely torn, I thought I was screwed. But the war meant we scattered in all directions. I help them with money, of course. Where are they now? One is in Przemyśl, the other in Madrid. Shall I give you the number of the one in Spain? Have you done any interviews with refugees there? Here you are, you can say I gave it you, and say hello from me.’
* * *
‘Ekaterina, you played the lead in the film My Grandmother Fanny Kaplan. It’s a love story, but Fanny Kaplan went down in history for something else; she tried to assassinate Vladimir Lenin in 1918. How do you relate to that?’
‘The director sent me the script. I went to see her and I said: “I can’t figure it out. Did she shoot him or not?” She leaned over towards me and said: “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” Now, in her place, I wouldn’t have hesitated, even though our Fanny is refined, delicate, fantastically in love with the man who set her up to do this. One night in Kyiv the air raid siren went off. My little girl Vera ran off and hid in a cupboard. We grabbed the children and ran to the bomb shelter under the main theatre. There were a lot of children down there, loads of actor friends, pet rabbits, dogs, cats. Kids were making puzzles out of broken tiles. Actors were doing magic tricks. The bombing stopped, a composer improvised a little tune on a xylophone and then said: “Thank you! Have a peaceful night everybody!”’
* * *
First, a tank crew was billeted in the house shared by the twin sisters. Almost immediately, the sisters were raped by the entire crew. The sisters escaped. They spent a cold March night in the forest and after another 24 hours reached Kyiv. For almost a week, they took various trains to reach the border, then Polish border guards questioned them for God knows how long, but couldn’t get a word out of them. Then, some kind person brought them to Prague, but they had no idea where they were. Then, a psychotherapist tried to help them out of shock, but did not really succeed. And they cannot describe any of this on Humanitarian Corridor because they are deaf.
* * *
I was being interviewed on television here in Prague and the anchorman asked me where I felt at home. I had to pause to think before answering. I did come up with something, but my answer was vague, albeit sincere. I replied that I am a person in transit. I have lived in five countries and half a dozen cities, but I only feel at home in a hotel room.
What I failed to add was that my attitude to hotels is American. It strikes me that Americans best understand the subtleties of hotel life. I am thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote. In their writing, hotels, motels, and guesthouses are staging posts between life and death. Characters in American novels have frantic sex, die, kill, commit suicide mainly in hotels. That is how the American journey ends. Guests check in to hotels to say goodbye to life forever. There is a good reason why the expression ‘to check out’ can also mean ‘to die’.
It is said of old churches that they ‘breathe with prayer’. A home also has ‘to breathe with life’. It takes several generations of unstinting effort to achieve this. The twentieth century radically changed the concept of home, the image of home itself. Revolutionaries in brown and black shirts, commissars in leather coats did not leave a single stone standing as they smashed the idea of home. Millions of people were pushed into the foundation pits of socialist construction, the barracks of Dachau, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and the survivors were then scattered around communal apartments. Whole peoples were expelled from their ancestral homes and their empty dwellings resettled with faceless masses.
At the beginning of the 1950s, a new term appeared in international law: displaced persons. They numbered millions. They were the people whom the Second World War had deprived of home and homeland. Anna Akhmatova wrote:
No, not under the vault of another sky,
not under the shelter of other wings.
I was with my people then,
there where my people were doomed to be.
Akhmatova’s poem, like the times in which she lived, is full of pathos. She did not like emigrés. Let God be her judge. I have a completely different understanding of home and a different sense of national closeness. Without any hint of pathos, but not without pride, I can name the nation to which I have belonged for over forty years. My people are the displaced persons, the political emigrés and just plain migrants, the refugees, the stray dogs of Europe. I am a patriot.
Igor Pomerantsev is a writer and broadcaster who grew up in the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi. He emigrated from the USSR in 1978 and subsequently worked for the Russian-language services of the BBC and Radio Liberty. His writing has appeared in Partisan Review, The TLS, and numerous other publications. He started a new podcast for Radio Liberty, Humanitarian Corridor, immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.