Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Going Back

In writing the entries about “Dissidents”, I’ve begun to realize that for me the issues in this subject go back a long way – probably to the beginning of my involvement with Russian studies in the early 1960s. In those days, such an involvement also inevitably entailed a prolonged encounter with the Soviet Union. Since for someone from a Western democracy it's almost impossible to understand cognitively the reality of the fabric of life in a totalitarian state, a Westerner’s memories of contact with that fabric are almost always bound to be selective, personal and subjective to an extent that may make them irrelevant in terms of historical truth. Yet I believe that since part of the legacy of the Cold War has been a consciousness of the old divide between East and West, and the barriers it created between human beings on either side of it, it’s perhaps important for those in the West who did have first-hand experience – however partial and “cushioned” – of life in the Soviet reality, to talk about it and discuss it. For it was a world that was not merely physical and geographic, but also extended far into realms of thought, morality, political awareness, aesthetics, and other regions, while at the same time functioning as a kind of reversing mirror of Western social and intellectual norms.

“A man cannot bear the thought of being crushed by a physical compulsion; therefore he deifies the force that rules over him, investing it with superhuman traits, with omniscient reason, with a special mission; and in this way he saves a bit of his own dignity. The Russian writer Belinsky, for instance, made use of Hegel during a certain phase of his life, to deify czardom.” This is how, towards the end of his autobiographical work Native Realm, the great Polish-Lithuanian author Czeslaw Milosz illustrates the choice between “madness” (the refusal to recognize necessity) and “servility” (the acknowledgment of one’s complete powerlessness),which he saw as a defining characteristic of life in a totalitarian society. I think it was a dawning consciousness of this choice – or rather, of the fact that in certain conditions of social and political development such a choice might have to be made – that eventually made clear to me, somewhere around the end of the second year of my studies in Russian literature and history, the essential difference between Russian culture and the culture of the West, and made me want to understand it further.

In future postings under this heading, I’ll try to describe how that process of discovery and understanding developed for me.

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