A book about Russia by Andrzej Stasiuk was to be expected, for two reasons. First, in the perverse memoir Dojczland Stasiuk had described his trips to Germany. Second, because he went to Russia.
The relationship between the two books—the one about Germany and the one about Russia—arises from the fact that for Stasiuk, each of these countries has marked the fate of Central and Eastern Europe. Germany and Russia are like the two jaws of a vise in which the regions lying between them were seized. The strength of the grip varied, but the very proximity of the two powers determined the prospects available to Poland and the countries to its south. For two centuries Poland was afraid of both its neighbors; after World War II it feared the east, while showering the west with a poisonous admiration.
Stasiuk had to go to Russia. And since he went, he had to write about it.
Because he’s driven to travel. He travels and he writes compulsively, and we’re addicted to reading him. He’s even developed his own genre—the travel essay. An essay of this kind arises out of—or even during—a journey. Yet it isn’t the customary travel journal or reportage. It’s a hybrid. The East opens with a description of a present-day scene—the author and a friend are packing up furniture from a collective farm store and taking it to a one-hundred-year-old Lemko cottage, the last to survive in the southeastern borderlands of Poland. An association leads the narrator to recall other provincial shops; then to a description of the forced resettlement of the Lemkos carried out by the Polish army in 1947; and after that to reflections on Russia as the epicenter of a mighty wave of expulsions.
The preceding outline makes it clear that the book is not devoted in its entirety to Russia. In fact, the “east” of the title includes two domains, the historical and the social. The east conceived of historically is a process set in motion by the October Revolution. The other east is the dependent classes.
In considering the revolution, the author does not seek to indicate communism or totalitarianism as its consequences. Stasiuk is a historiosopher searching for the hidden patterns of history. He asserts that the essential goal of the communist revolution was the abolition of material. It was not a question of property rights, but of the basis of such rights – namely, property itself. The revolution aimed to destroy materiality as a dimension of collective existence. The revolution could have succeeded if the revolutionaries had never stopped anywhere. Yet before long there began the stage of large-scale construction—of power plants, railroad lines, cities—and that was the beginning of the downfall. The communism that was brought to Poland and other countries at bayonet point, the communism that evicted ethnic minorities and forced the migration of the population from the villages to the towns—this communism was already a child of compromise and forerunner of the great defeat. It promised liberation from material, yet it confined people in material that was impermanent.
Stasiuk observes the consequences of this failure in Russia, where he sees dilapidated factories, shabby rail stations, vanishing cities. He also observes them—and adds moving commentary—in relation to the Polish provinces, which after World War II were called upon to take part in the bogus construction of the new order, a process doomed from the start.
The role of Russia has run its course. At one time Russia defeated its enemies—Napoleon, Hitler—with its limitless space. Now it is losing against itself, unable to manage that space.
Today, according to Stasiuk someone else is directing history—China, which, instead of waging war against material, allows everyone in the entire world to use it. China is victorious because it gives the best response to the challenge of materiality. And by Stasiuk’s account it’s exactly this that organizes the transformation of civilizations—Western Europe attempted to create perfect forms, Russia sought to eliminate material, whereas China seeks to turn material into something disposable. And since we’re talking about a global process, it’s winner takes all.
Translated by Bill Johnston
In 2006, for the first time I went to Russia, because I wanted to see the country in whose shadow I’d spent my childhood and youth. I also wanted to see the spiritual homeland of my local collective farm. I arrived in Irkutsk after a thirteen-hour journey. The flight from Moscow was supposed to take five hours but for reasons unknown, instead of flying to Irkutsk we landed in Bratsk in the early morning and were told to disembark. Gray rain was falling on gray concrete. The airport bus pulled up—a glass-covered cabin containing seats, attached to a Zil chassis. In the distance was a dark green forest. Cement, weather-beaten sheet iron and the military green of the wet trees in the dawn light. From the very first moments there, in Bratsk, I felt I’d gotten what I was after, though I’d had no idea it even existed. The runway glistened like a dead fish. Later, when I stepped out in front of the glass-paneled terminal building, I realized there was nothing else around. That is, there was a kind of broad highway, some buildings, cars in a parking lot. But all this barely existed. People were stepping off buses, getting out of cars, coming in from the deepest heart of the unseen rest. The city lay by a huge reservoir. The Angara had been dammed, and the waters had spilled out across the taiga. I see it now on a map, but back then I stayed strictly at the airport. The rectangular sheet is green, with the reservoir more or less in the middle, like a splotch of light blue ink. Above it, in the top part of the map, there’s virtually nothing but green. Black dots indicate otdelnye stroyenia, individual buildings. Sixty miles then a house, thirty more and another, and so on all the way to the Arctic Ocean. But there, at the airport, I knew nothing of any of this. I strolled about and stared at the Russians. They must have had me pegged at first glance, just as I had no trouble picking out the few Western tourists from our flight. They were pacing the hall anxiously, trying to find out why we’d landed here instead of in Irtutsk. Whereas the Russians simply sat themselves down and waited. I walked around because I couldn’t tear my eyes from Bratsk, from the concrete, from the Russians. From the dirty windows of the hall, the wooden lockers, the green chipboard doors, the terrazzo flooring. I’d traveled four thousand miles and thirty-odd years. The airport at Bratsk was like the Stadion bus station in Warsaw, from where buses went to Węgrów, Sokołów, Siemiatycze. The people were similar too. Yet at the same time I had the feeling I was strolling at the very limit of inhabited regions, that beyond this there was only geography. In a cramped kiosk they poured boiling water into plastic cups and dropped in a teabag. It was too hot to pick up, and there was nowhere to put it down. People were dozing at the three tables pushed into a dark corner.
It’s mid-December and finally it’s snowing. In wintertime everything gets quieter. The past grows vivid. The smell of coal smoke and the rasp of metal shovels in the early morning quiet, forty years ago in Praga. Back then it would also become quiet when it snowed. And that metallic sound on the sidewalks. Or the dull scrape of a plywood board used for shoveling snow. In those days there weren’t any brightly colored plastic tools—green, red, blue, yellow shovels with aluminum fittings. Just plywood darkened from the wetness, and discolored metal. Monochromatic materials. The geometric white planes of the rooftops and gray smoke rising straight toward the sky through the still air. I left for school at seven-thirty and I had no idea there was such a thing as communism in the world. The path led through a group of acacia trees. Then you had to scramble up over the railway embankment and hop across the tracks. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as socialism. At home no one talked about stuff like that, because what everyone took part in was simply life, nothing more.
My mother had seen Russians in 1944. They were sailors. They would moor their gunboats in the floodwaters of the Bug. The river used to often change its course. There would be green standing water in the cut-off channels; later it would retreat, leaving marshland behind. The gunboats and cutters and pontoon boats probably moored in the main stream, close to the manor houses. The sailors wore striped shirts, like the ones from the Aurora and the Potemkin, and at Kronstadt. But they did not bring revolutionary ferment. Grandfather traded with them. He brought them vodka or moonshine and came back with canned army ration sand sugar. The woods were strewn with German bodies. People despised the Russians. Maybe not the sailors, but the hollow-eyed infantry, who cooked chickens without plucking them. I heard the same story dozens of times: unplucked chickens, three watches on each wrist, rifle straps made of string. That was how my mother remembered the arrival of the revolution. That was how everyone remembered it. In the towns and in the villages. In speech and in writing. The unplucked chickens, the wristwatches, and the string. The hunger for chickens and watches swept in from far away in Eurasia, from the remote nesses of tundra and steppe. This wasn’t Marx making the world a better place, only some mongrel Temüjin chasing around after poultry and timepieces. In the villages with their dark wooden houses, in the thatched cottages along dusty back roads, lurked a fear of untamed rapacious legions that would suddenly descend, plundering, razing the thatched roofs and the dusty roads and the wooden homes that were little better than Mongolian yurts. It wouldn’t come, though, from the cities, from among the brick houses and stores and churches, but from the very ends of space, from places where the people were beginning to grow fur and by night would howl to the red moon. It had to originate somewhere in those parts and at first come loping across its own steppes on all fours, then only later, as it drew closer to our civilized settlements, would it straighten up by degrees and finally stand on two feet so as to have its hands free to catch chickens and put on watches. By evening, in the villages they turned down the wick of the lamp and listened to the pounding of artillery to the east. The earth shook as if all the horses of Asia and all its camels were thundering in. In theend they would turn off the light and place their ears to the floor. The smarter ones dug hidey-holes for their chickens and watches. Some of them thought about leaving with the Germans. But the noises coming from the east sounded like the mutterings of the beast of the Apocalypse and everyone knew that the Germans, in those shiny boots of theirs that everyone admired, would not find shelter anywhere on earth.
But later, after I was born, at home I never heard anyone talk about communism or the Russians. There was a universal silence on the subject of geopolitics. There was nothing to talk about. My mother and my father had both left their villages as part of the great migration of accursed peoples. They were led out of the house of bondage. Out of the land of dust and hunger and filth—the scorned domains. From east to west. My mother twenty miles, my father seventy-five. Because life was elsewhere. From east to west. From a peasant village to a lordly city. So as to forget their legacy of thralldom, and to put on shoes. To the west, to the capital that a patriotic impulse had turned into a skeleton, such that it had to be filled out once again with human flesh. The insurgents of the uprising, Hitler, and communism had made it possible for them to take the metropolis. But they never made it to the center. They stopped in the outskirts, like the majority of the plebeian conquistadors. But that, no one mentioned. Everything was exactly as it should be—a just division of the spoils of history.
Translated by Bill Johnston