Monday, March 3, 2014


Many who have held supreme power recall the sense of finding themselves inside an invisible but impenetrable bubble. Boris Yeltsin in his memoirs complained about what he called a “rubber balloon,” and a friend of mine, who was once close to Mikhail Gorbachev, described to me his encounters with the USSR's last president in almost the same words. President Clinton, like Yeltsin, complained about this effect. It is difficult to get a sensible picture of the world when you are surrounded day after day, year after year by a circle of approval-seeking advisors. Bad enough in the US, imagine how much worse it must be in Russia where power is traditionally centralized and concentrated in the top executive. Fortunately, the US President is limited to only two terms.

If Yeltsin’s bubble was made out of some invisible rubber, Putin’s, especially after the Olympics in Sochi, is made of far sturdier and more modern stuff. I imagine an array of life-like screens flashing nightmare scenes of victimized and humiliated compatriots, alternating with the Russian version of The Triumph of the Will (Bondarchuk’s recent Stalingrad or some grandiloquent film epic by Nikita Mikhalkov).  For fourteen years Putin identified his own person with the destiny of Russia, and this is not counting his previous career of service under oath in the Services. Now he finds himself caged in his own presidential bubble – a humiliated superman of Russia – and is very hard for anyone to reach.

His friend and colleague on the political Olympus, Angela Merkel, tried. She called him. They talked. What of it? She later telephoned Obama and told him that she found Putin unreachable. Relying on a White House source in the know,  the NYT (03.02.14) cited Merkel as saying to Obama: “He is in another world.” How can we get him back ours?

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 comes to mind. How remarkable it is that Nikita Khrushchev had the presence
tof mind, inner courage, and some deep humanity that had somehow survived Stalin’s tutelage, to back off and step away from the brink. How equally remarkable that Jack Kennedy had the instinct to go against his advisors and to have the political courage and patience for defusing the crisis. Despite the obvious differences, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the Crimean crisis of its own day, though of course, much more dangerous in the short run. Russia felt encircled by the might of the US and its Western allies. In those days, before the Soviet ICBMs became truly operational, the US could reach Russia with bombers and rockets carrying nuclear charges (some were stationed a stone’s throw from Crimea in Turkey), and all the USSR had then was a strategic bomber that could reach the continental US but did not hold enough fuel to return home from its mission. Some general suggested to Khrushchev that it could land in Mexico after bombing the US, to which Khrushchev retorted with characteristic brash humor, saying something to the effect that Mexico wasn’t Russia’s mother-in-law. But of course, both Khrushchev and Kennedy, especially Kennedy, were only beginning their careers at the top – mere rookies compared to Putin with his fourteen years in the driver’s seat.

‘Travesty’ by Konstantin Altunin,
The main question is: how to shake Putin out of his bubble? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a special role was given the secret back channels, and there was no direct line between the Kremlin and the White House. Now, of course, there is plenty – chat away! President Obama called Putin twice. Like teens in love, they spoke for two and a half hours in two days! Chancellor Merkel called Putin. They chatted for an hour. Nothing worked. Direct communication has failed. Clearly, Putin is convinced the West is inviting him to play the game with loaded dice, and should he agree, would cheat him  and then, his worst horror, given the latest homophobic legislation in Russia, will set him up, a bachelor, with some LGBT type…

Let us hope he is wrong on both counts. So, how can he be convinced that the West is not scheming to cheat him? Let us invite Russia to join NATO and EU. And perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy. Then, after all of this has been settled and the crisis diffused, the world should let Ukraine, its post-Soviet territorial integrity assured, to sort out its own maddening mess.

Copyright © 2014 by Gregory Freidin (

PS.  "Travesty" by Konstantin Altunin shows President Putin wearing a tight-fitting slip and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is wearing knickers and a bra. The painting was seized at a gallery in St. Petersburg in August 2013. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Parnossos: Money, Yiddish, Inspiration

   A friend from St. Petersburg asked for a pun about money. I obliged: "On Parnassus without the parnos" (На Парнасе без парноса).  In Russian especially, the Yiddish parnos  and Parnassus produce an awkward rhyme, an alliterative disjuncture typical of the relationship between artistic creativity and profit. There is even a whiff of "filthy lucre" in this combination, with parnos (stress on the second syllable) calling to mind the Russian понос, or diarrhea.

   I did not know Yiddish growing up. I knew of it, as my father, who grew in the South-West speaking Yiddish, used it when he did not want me or my sister understand what he and mother were talking about. My mother, originally from Samara and born to a more assimilated family, understood him but responded in Russian (her Yiddish was visibly labored). Be that as it may, for the first time I remember hearing the Yiddish word for money when I turned thirteen or fourteen, and we moved to Maryana roshcha (Mary's Grove), a neighborhood in Moscow that, I was soon to learn, had been a home to a large and motley Jewish community, one not unlike Isaac Babel's Moldavanka, the home of his fabulous Jewish gangster Benya Krik.

   Until then the four of us lived in a single room in a communal apartment but in the very center of Moscow, in the haute–bourgeois (Soviet style) district of the Maroseika Street. Our home was a stone's throw from the enigmatic Kremlin, the scary Lubyanka, and -- the enchanting Chistye prudy Boulevard, with stylish tram, skating rink and boats in the summer. Next to it was the movie theater with a Ionic colonnade called the Coliseum. Even the synagogue (Moscow's central) had Ionic columns! Yiddish, to put it mildy, wasn't quite come il fault in this neighborhood. What a difference a fifteen-minute tram ride made! The opposite spirit reined in the other hood, which housed the old wooden Hassidic synagogue, unprepossessing on ordinary days but transformed into a tableau out of  Chagal every Friday. That was when I saw old-world Jewish men, hatted and bowed by the weight of their holy books, trudge slowly to the temple for their Sabbath prayer (the synagogue burned down in 1993). More, remarkable, even the Russian street thugs in Maryina roshcha had a smattering of Yiddish. If you crossed them, they'd threaten you with a kick in the beitsem, not the balls. It was all intoxicating.

   Soon after we moved, I fell in with a couple of Jewish kids who lived in old wooden houses across the street from my new apartment building. How their parents earned a living remained a mystery to me but I never saw the adults go to work. My Yiddish vocabulary was growing and before long, one of their children enriched my Yiddish with parnos. Except that he pronounced it as parnus, with a preferred usage sporting the Russian ending for plural: parnusy (parnoosė). 

   One lazy afternoon, a bell rang. It was one of my new friends from the hood asking if I had any parnusy. He needed five rubles for the "girl he had waiting in his apartment," and if I had a fiver, I could have her, too. I do not recall whether or not I had such a sum (it was a multiple of my allowance) but I remember turning crimson, ears burning, and wishing the earth would open and swallow me up. Looking back, I am ready to believe in the original sin, the root of all shame and ambivalence. Just think of Adam. If he felt ashamed after he was tempted, surely, he would not have yielded to Satan's enticements. Well, at least, not right away.

   Decades later, clean-cut Yiddishists corrected my parnus -- this time on the American academic Parnassus -- to parnos.

  I now stand corrected -- on Parnossos.

Maroseika in the 1930s but thats how I remember it
in the 1950s and 1960s.

Chistye prudy Boulevard exactly as I remember it
from my childhood

Only 15 minutes away by tram from Chistye prudy Boulevard where I grew up,
Maryina roshcha synagogue and its environs seemed to hail from another era.

Человек в футляре, или сила искусства

Вчера был на "Человеке в футляре" с Барышниковым в главной роли. Постановка по двум рассказам (второй - "О любви," а третий, "Крыжовник," опущен). Замечательно грустно, фальшивых нот почти нет. И поразительное - Шишков прости, не знаю, как перевести - video art.
Одновременный вид сверху или со стороны на экране, но художник пропустил видеоряд через "чеховский" фильтр, и в результате на экране вознникает и живет мозговая туманная
хореография сна, а по сути -- балет заключенного в мозговую коробку желания. В общем, чудная постановка - глубокая, современная, но без педалирования и надуманного эпатажа.
Сегодня утром проснулся от дизельного шума на улице. "Ах, растяпа, я вчера забыл мусор выставить после театра! Вскочил, скатился по лестнице, и побежал выставлять бачки. Только на улице до конца проснулся и тут до меня дошло: мусор-то забирают во вторник, а сегодня -- понедельник. Перестраховался! Что ж, значит, и я - человек в футляре.  Вот она - сила искусства!

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