Russian Lessons

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Alexander Solzhenitsyn; drawing by David Levine

What a strange spectacle it is: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s biweekly broadcasts on Russian television. In the late evening, when the long Moscow day-light begins to fade and the construction dust settles, the writer pours out a stream of banalities, platitudes, and exclamations (“It’s a nightmare!,” “This is terrible!,” “Disgraceful!”) in his brisk, hearty falsetto, flapping his arms about, stretching them toward the television camera, lifting them to the ceiling, or even covering his face, as if he can no longer bear the thought of so much horror. He condemns everything that comes to hand. And, in his own way, he is absolutely right—like any elderly pensioner who sits on a bench in the courtyard to take the fresh air before bed, vent the irritation accumulated over a lifetime, and grumble against life, which hasn’t listened to him. There really is a lot of disgracefulness around. It’s news to no one.

Solzhenitsyn fumes for fifteen minutes twice a month, on Mondays, beginning at about 9:45 PM. It’s a good time: the hard day is behind. The Mercedes have run their red lights, carrying rich “new Russians” to night clubs. Professional beggars have unglued their artificial sores, unfastened their gangrenous legs, and stowed their daily take. Homeless people are laying out their bedding under warm pipes in basements. Children have gone to bed, young men are on the phone flirting with girlfriends, parents have already had dinner, shut and drawn the seven bolts of their steel doors, and are yawning. It’s time to relax. What’s on the other channels? A music video, a new variety show, a retro-variety show, a film, and the program “Reporter,” which offers “the story of an eyewitness to the eruption of the famous Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia.” Didn’t the monster erupt in 1883…can that really be it? The terrifying wave of lava washed away the neighboring islands, and in the aftermath volcanic dust hung about in the atmosphere for decades, creating the fantastical crimson sunsets that so inspired the Symbolists and others. “It was stifling, the sunsets were fiendish, insufferable, crimson. We remembered them all till the end of our days…,” Akhmatova wrote. But maybe they mean the eruption of 1952? That would be more recent and perhaps more important news than what the Nobel laureate rushes to tell us: he rails indignantly about the injustices of trade union organization in the USSR in the 1920s.

“A disgrace,” the writer chastises from the screen. Cleaning ladies sweeping the halls of hotels stop for a moment to listen, leaning on their brooms. They willingly agree: “That’s right, a disgrace! Here I am, working three jobs, too…and bread has gone up again! That Luzhkov [the mayor of Moscow] should be put in prison along with the rest of them! It’s that democratic mafia!…” The writer doesn’t hear them, nor do they hear him.

They say that deaf people live longer. Solzhenitsyn…

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