Russia and Viruses
“It’s all bullshit.” —my dad, frequently
My family is crawling out from a double wallop of strep throat followed by our first ever Covid infection followed by one kid’s possibly allergic reaction to antibiotics prescribed for the strep throat. I cannot, truthfully, remember the last time I’ve been this sick, except way back when, when the kids were still babies and I myself got a horrible case of strep (a long history of personal horrible strep is why I’m always eager to treat it with antibiotics early, but lesson learned in this case).
Even walking the dog was hard, and that was before a snowstorm and frigid weather blew in, bringing -26°F (-32°C) wind chill. Today it’s a balmy high of 13°F (-10°C).
I hoped we’d escape effects like brain fog, and exhaustion, and crawling around the house trying to feed people chicken soup and orange juice and tea, while wanting to do nothing but huddle miserably under blankets. But here we are. Or were. I’m not sure. Thankfully—truly, said with an enormous amount of gratitude—good friends and relatives kept us supplied with essentials and good thoughts. We’re so lucky.
I didn’t escape the brain fog, though. After watching all of The Baby-Sitter’s Club again, my mind was almost up to reading Murderbot. It took so long, every scene a step-by-step challenge. By the time I finished the last novella, all I could think was a) I love Murderbot (not new news), and b) reading is hard.
Most of my digital photos of Russia are lost in too many iterations of photo archives. Shutterfly spits up hordes of gray squares, and many others are stuck in old backup hard drives and iterations of when cloud storage was new and everything went into various platforms that I have no idea how to access. (Luckily, I am slightly controlling and obsessive and order prints of everything once a year before it gets lost to the ether; I hope that will still be an option in the future.) It’s hard to believe that I’ve got digital image memories twenty years old lurking grayly in Shutterfly’s servers (I switched to Snapfish sometime in the last ten years because their print quality was better).
I don’t think I need to tell anyone why Russia is on my mind, and Ukraine, and this beautiful heartbreak of a country that I have admired, felt part of, and loved all my life—most of it from afar. As a 1970s/80s child, my Russia was locked away behind the Iron Curtain, unreachable except for an occasional and incredibly expensive phone call from a neighbor’s kitchen, my father living in exile for seventeen years.
I don’t want that to be my world again, my family unreachable and my father’s country considered an enemy. I have two new nieces I haven’t even met yet. But who knows where we’ll end up. Mostly, I don’t want the people of Ukraine to have to face the stupid, insane cruelty of what’s coming.
Trying to dig my mind out of Covid-dom, I finally picked up a book (very timely) that an old friend of my father’s wrote, Russian and American Cultures, by Konstantin V. Kustanovich, professor emeritus of Russian at Vanderbilt University.
Like Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia and Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians: A History, Kustanovich’s book looks to explain Russia’s unique and often inexplicable worldview and societal structures through culture; skimming parts of later chapters, it looks like he gets into more detail about how tightly repressive tsardom and the necessity of collectivist peasant society led to a difficult-to-transform dependence on authoritarianism mixed with suspicion of authority. You don’t have to read far to get to the book’s promise: the first section of the introduction is titled “What is wrong with Russia?”
Once, as my sister put it, I figure out how to navigate around the Swiss cheese holes in my thinking processes, I look forward to reading some answers, or at least ideas.
*Photo up top is of the Church of the Archangel Michael, Arkhangelskoe, Russia, on Maslenitsa 2005. The festival of Maslenitsa isn’t one I know much about—supposedly it has ancient pre-Christian pagan roots as a celebration welcoming back the sun and is now tied to the beginning of Lent—aside from copious amounts of blini pancakes to eat and the requesting of forgiveness from friends and loved ones. Please forgive me. If only the world, including Russia’s leaders themselves, could enter into that fullness of forgiveness and the asking of it for a day.
Maslenitsa this year begins on Monday, February 28.
Bonus photo: a statue of Bulat Okudzhava, folk musician of the 1960s, on the Arbat. Kustanovich opens chapter 1 of his book with a 1964 quote from Okudzhava: “It’s a pity that we dream of idols as we did before, and we still keep seeing ourselves as slaves.”
Super short list of stuff to read, listen to, or watch (although I can recommend The Baby-Sitter’s Club, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which is about where my brain has been the last week, plus I found myself more irritated than usual with anyone telling me what to think about things. I vote Baby-Sitter’s Club for president of all the countries and they also get to be the thought-leaders.):
Before my brain shut down, I got a lot out of this incredible interview with legal scholar Mark Squillace on a water rights case in Colorado, the fight against privatization of public waters, and the case’s deep connection to the establishment of the public trust in U.S. states.
Ditto this War on Cars interview with Jessie Singer about her new book There Are No Accidents, which starts with the story of a driver and the cyclist he hit but branches out into how hard we work to pretend that so many injuries and deaths are by accident, when in fact they’re a failure of design—often an intentional one.
Someone in a Discord server I peek at sometimes posted this link to a video of kulning, an ancient Swedish herding call, by Jonna Jinton. I could probably listen to that all day. Jinton’s channel is a little too ethereally beautiful in a Galadriel-in-Lothlorien kind of way, but also hard to look away from. Here’s one for the life-hacking people who swear by a daily cold shower. (I buy the dunk in the ice. I do not totally buy the sitting by the small fire in wet underwear afterward.)
Which led to someone else posting a slightly over-dramatized but equally fascinating video of the ancient whistled language of La Gomera.
I wasn’t up to writing much of anything new, but had this interview with Annabel Abbs, author of Windswept (which I truly loved), queued up on Medium. She also recently came out with a second book, 52 Ways to Walk (under the name Annabel Streets), which I have on my shelf and am looking forward to poking around in. It’s a long interview, but I didn’t cut it down much because Abbs is smart, insightful, and delightful.