Anna Arutunyan does a liberal translation of Alexander Vvedensky

This is an excerpt from the “Guest on a Horse” poem:

Sleek and simple was the stallion
As transparent as a stream.
Long of mare and hurried temper,
Said that he would like some cream.
“I’m the chairman of this meeting!
Come to join you and parley.
Teach me what to do, Creator!”
God replied to him, “Okay.”
Then the stallion took a stand
And I looked into his hand.
He wasn’t frightening!
And I realized then, I sinned.
God had taken from me matter:
Body, consciousness and will.
Everything came back to me.
In the boiling pot was winter;
In the stream a prison’s chill.
In the flower there was sickness.
In the june bug – strife, discord.
None of it made sense to me.
Could it be you’re absent, God?
#Misfortune

If you read more about who Vvedensky was – and how he ended up – the goosebumps will be more plentiful.

Once again, this is a very liberal translation, but that’s precisely why I like it.

I often wonder where a mind like Vvedensky’s goes after death. You can imagine it to be a kind of mind that doesn’t entirely leave the landscape. I was once walking back from a wedding on a summer night in the Middle of Nowhere, Vladimir region, Russia, and as the tall grass swayed in the breeze on either side of the path, someone said, “The grass is full of dead poets” – and it was the truest thing I’d ever heard about that place.

gena in the grass

Midsummer, 2013. I’m playing “The Last of Us”

I wrote this article about what it’s like to play “The Last of Us” the other day. It got me reminiscing.

In the article, I make a passing reference to Russia in the 1990s, and how my friend said the same thing that I had been thinking for a while: some aspects of this most cerebral and literary post-Apocalyptic fungal zombie extravaganza are exactly like living through that period (the 1990s happened to me in Kiev, Ukraine – but it wasn’t all that different).

And by “aspects” I mean “emotional aspects.” It was like going through a horrible, irreversible betrayal by a loved one, and beginning to grow suspicious of the world and what it contained – the streets, the sky, the sounds.

You stared down an alley and wondered what was going to come out of that alley. You listened for shrieks in the night. You made sure the flashlight always had batteries.

For survivors of the post-Soviet Apocalypse, “The Last of Us” is a chance to safely go back – to die and re-spawn as needed.

Of course, I don’t want to be too dramatic about it. Fungal zombies weren’t exactly chasing us through the street. No one was making shivs in the dark, to stab monsters in the neck with (no one I knew personally, anyway – your mileage may vary).

But there was that sense of the landscape gone hostile. That notion of the darkened windows across the street watching you. Sizing you up. Etc.

When people ask me to explain what’s happening in Russia right now, I usually tell them that, “Most people don’t think a society is possible unless there is a strong leader to follow. And this has lead to the development of a quasi-society. An undead society, if you will. Neither here nor there.”

And people will say, “And by strong leader, you mean Putin.”

But I mean just about anyone, really. I mean people on both sides of the ideological divide. Some city mayor who may be corrupt (“they’re all corrupt,” Russians sigh with resignation. “So it’s impossible to care.”) – but will give land and funding for a children’s hospice, when the same impulse to help out should be coming from everyone. The Duma deputy who voted in favor of a horrific law (“Because that’s party discipline!”) but is actually a very intelligent and sensitive guy we all like to joke with on Twitter. The demagogue from daytime TV who has fought tooth and nail to get victims of dodgy investment projects back in his hometown to finally receive compensation. The actress with the eyes of a poet who agitates for the regime and saves the lives of severely ill children – every day. An anti-corruption blogger whose own corruption trial proved him right. A former it-girl who blogs about hating children and fat people – and who, like Cassandra, predicts every twist and turn of Russia’s modern political narrative.

All of such people are like islands, or the staring eyes of hurricanes. They’re both the illness and the cure. They’re the reason why Russia has only a quasi-society – and said quasi-society’s best hope, just because they can make things happen. Because they believe that they can make things happen – things both good and bad.

They’re heroes – and a heroic age is always a bitch to live in.

Still, Moscow in particular has already changed quite a bit. We have “wine and zombies” parties with my friends, because we know that it has changed. We feel it in the air. Great pillars of light burst from the skies in July and stand firm on the ground. Lovers sit in the shade of towering chestnut trees. A drunken hipster is much more likely to stumble out of that dark alley. A burly security guard will help you race across the supermarket to ring up your alcohol before the magic our of 11 p.m., wherein Bentleys turn into pumpkins and getting drunk is suddenly only legal in bars. A city-wide decree resulted in new playgrounds and exercise equipment for the elderly, who are confounded by the fact that they are expected to stay in shape. The Moscow metro has not degenerated into the London Underground. The nights are full of music – some of it actually good.

I wonder if the lavish spending on Sochi 2014 will ruin all of that – this impression of the possibility of society. I wonder if the 2018 World Cup will do it instead. I wonder if nothing much will happen, and we will simply grandly waste our youth on making up extravagant stories and telling them in print and digital.

Well, we will do that either way.

look at the fun we're having

Also, something tells me I may have written my last play in a while. I don’t know if I want to write for theater crowds anymore. I want to write for mouthy boys and mouthy girls like me. I want to write for the people in their parents’ basements. The dispossessed, the perfectly cool. The gamers, in other words. And possibly the TV audiences.

There is no map I’m following as a writer. I’m following a bunch of vague notions. It’s frickin terrifying – but when it comes down to it, my theory is that people do most things for the thrill. We rarely smile when we play video games, for example. Doesn’t mean we do not love them.

Beautiful people: pretty pictures of women I’m related to, a.k.a. hipsters back in the USSR

I’ve been digging around my family history – the sad chapters of it, mostly. When you’re trying to understand some things about the present, the past can be a helpful place to start.

Then Yuri Nifatov, a family friend, contacted me and let me have a look at his archive. It features a lot of Crimea. Crimea remains a weird, magical place – no matter how many beer tents and high-rise hotels go up there.

My mother, Tatiana (right), and her twin sister Natalya, in Crimea in the 1970’s:

Lady of leisure (otherwise known as my mother):

My mother in Novy Svet, Crimea, the place that can change the trajectory of a person’s life, for better or for worse:

Yuri reads the ladiez a newspaper:

Hipsters are an ancient tradition. Here’s my aunt being one in the USSR:

She also wore ponchos (at least I think that’s a poncho):

And fished in the sea with Yuri (the Black Sea, to be precise. Please note the bathing suit):

When November came, she was known to pout:

But never for too long, because there were bikes to ride (actually, that’s her sister, my mom, riding the bike – but who cares, right?):

These pictures belong to Yuri, and I’m posting them here with his kind permission. If you know me well, you know I’m prone to Dramatic Speeches about my family history. This is the flip-side.

Glory to Gagarin

Image: Boris Kaufman (copyright: RIA Novosti)
Image: Boris Kaufman (copyright: RIA Novosti)

🙂

Odd to think that my grandfather apparently met him, once upon a time. Or maybe not so odd, all things considered. I realized this while going through some of my grandfather’s old pictures just a few years ago. There, among faces I didn’t know, or else faces that seemed slightly familiar, shots of one unmistakable smiling face, glowing predictably at the heart of what appeared to be yet another Soviet military function.

Among other, slightly more important stuff, Gagarin is probably directly responsible for my eventual falling in love with “Star Trek.”