I was told that I can better relate to (and sometimes write for) a colleague because of some shared Eastern European heritage. (The colleague is directly from there, as was my father.)
I didn’t disagree. “They are more direct,” it was suggested — and this too I generally find to be true. Eastern Europeans tend to possess a more blunt approach, or at least one that doesn’t tiptoe around other people’s feelings. (This does not describe me, yet I somehow appreciate it in others.)
Anyway, I’ve long theorized that part of this tendency, as well as — in Czechs, at least — a more fatalist, absurdist sense of humor, stems from generations and generations of being tread on by forces (invading empires, usually) well beyond their control.
I compare it to family members who had lived through the Great Depression in the U.S. “They’re different,” people would say, whether referring the tendency to save paper bags and twist ties and anything else, or to a generally more cautious outlook on life. And that’s just one generation that lived through the Depression. Imagine if generation upon generation lived through Turkish invasions, Austro-Hungarian domination, the occasional German occupation, and throw in a World War or two for good measure. Maybe even a mass human rights atrocity or two.
Anyway, I’ve been reading “The 900 Days” by Harrison Salisbury, the definitive (and uplifting!) book about the German siege of Leningrad, when they literally attempted to blockade, freeze and starve all of Leningrad into submission. (As we would later learn about the Germans in World War II, slaughtering an entire block of civilians was just part of the playbook.) The book is also a major source for the excellent fictional novel, “City of Thieves.”
In the middle of the winter siege, a radio man showed up for duty to find a new T-shaped broom handle, which his boss told him was to support him at the microphone in case he was too weak to stand. “And you must read,” the director said. “In thousands of apartments they are awaiting your voice.” (More on this in a moment.)
‘The First Violin is Dying’
The following is descriptive of what I’m talking about in many ways, and reminiscent of any random, casually melodramatic health update my father ever gave me:
“The wooden T was not just a gadget. Vladimir Volzhenin, the poet, had collapsed in the studio from hunger after reading his verses to the Leningrad public. He died a few days later. Aleksandr Yankevich, his face black, and breathing with difficulty, read Makarenko’s “Pedagogical Poem” over the radio, although he was so ill [a colleague] stood by in case he was unable to finish. Ivan Lapshonkov sang a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snow Maiden’ … he was so frail he had to support himself with a cane. By nightfall he was dead.”
That passage goes on and on. The dedication is admirable, the description almost amusingly matter-of-fact. (Maybe it’s only amusing if you’ve had your dad describe a cough and two broken femurs with equal levels of passive it’s-fine-but-no-it’s-horrible.)
Another echo of my father’s matter-of-fact approach to jarring news (as long as it wasn’t news that shamed the family; then it was avoided like a censor), is when they would dictate the:
“…regular weekly report on the condition of the orchestra: ‘The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.'”
When power was finally cut to the radio transmission in this city populated by an ever-decreasing population of starving, freezing, dying people:
“People from all ends of the city began to appear at Radio House, to ask what the matter was and when the station would be back on air. An old man tottered in [from the other side of town]: “Look here,” he said. “If something is needed, if it is a matter of courage — fine. Or even if it is a matter of cutting the ration. [Note: They’d cut rations repeatedly all winter. People resorted to eating wallpaper to supplement their daily slice of bread.] That we can take. But let the radio speak. Without that, life is too terrible. Without that, it is like lying in the grave. Exactly that.”
‘Nothing-to-Do Was More Terrible Than a Bombing Raid’
Okay, one more excerpt that really gets to the heart of art and human response under such repressive conditions, which was sadly just a different kind of repression than they faced under Soviet totalitarianism:
The surviving writers of the city would spend days planning a “Leningrad Speaking” or “One Day in Leningrad” kind of book that would depict all the people went through during the siege. Merely conceiving the book helped them survive. When it became apparent no censor would approve of actually creating the book, one writer said:
“Tell him that writers are dying without this work, that they cannot live without it.
Ketlinskaya knew this. Living in the cold, hungry, dark city, people themselves together by the consciousness of being needed. They began to die when they had nothing to do. Nothing-to-do was more terrible than a bombing raid.
But try as she would she could not get permission for the book. She became convinced that though no one really opposed the book, no one wanted to take responsibility for approving it; the old Russian problem: bureaucracy.
Yeah, and for many Eastern Europeans, that was just the peacetime problem.