Over the weekend, Deep Vellum author Mikhail Shishkin had a piece published in the Wall Street Journal with his take on the Sochi Olympics, “Sochi Olympics: Russian Writer Mikhail Shishkin Holds His Applause” (translated by Cory Merrill). Never one to shy away from condemning the inhumane and insane Putin regime, Shishkin reflects deeply on nationalism and patriotism, and the need for every regime to validate its own illegal existence using art: the poets, writers, painters, dancers, and philosophers you saw on vivid display as the representatives of Russia’s cultural history in the Sochi Opening Ceremonies. But they were all victims of oppressive regimes. A timely read, written in Shishkin’s incomparable voice. Whether it’s literary fiction or op-ed nonfiction, nobody can match Shishkin’s style, nobody.
One could attach the label ‘Déjà vu’ to everything that is going on in contemporary Russia. Once again we have an autocracy. Once again the courts serve the authorities instead of the law. Once again, the censors, the spirit of enslavement. Once again, the lie, the showing off, and the life principle: “It is better to stoop too low than not low enough.” In the new Russian empire, even the old Soviet anthem, personally selected by Stalin, has been restored.
The current Olympics painfully resemble the Moscow Olympics. Once again, state propaganda, as it did then, assures us that “sports are outside politics.” But under a regime that has political prisoners, everything is politics, including sports.
As a child, I rooted for the Russians against the Czechs. But in my mid teens, I came to realize that this wasn’t simply hockey—for the Czechs, this was battle. “You’ve got your tanks—we’ve got our pucks.” Sport was a weapon of the Cold War. Hockey victories prolonged the regime’s life, and losses shortened it.
Along with eternal questions like “Who is to blame?,” there is another dilemma that occupies Russian minds: Should we wish victory or defeat for our state? If you love your fatherland, then should you wish victory or defeat for it? In the minds of the people, it remains unclear where the Fatherland ends and the regime begins.
My school friend died in Afghanistan. They told him that he was defending the homeland over there. We would go to see his parents. Every time his mother would start crying: “What homeland? What homeland?” We would say nothing.
I remember a news report when the war in Chechnya began. A Russian soldier, still just a boy, said, “I am here defending my homeland.”
A regime, no matter the ideology, Orthodoxy, communism, Orthodoxy once more, always manipulated its people by means of patriotism—the trick worked flawlessly. And it continues to work. Now television propaganda is preparing Russians to defend the homeland in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. From what, Ukrainian occupiers?
It’s especially vile how every regime hides behind great writers. Pushkin and Tolstoy raised the intrinsic value of Russia to fundamentally new heights for Russians. It is one thing to feel that you belong to a country whose history consists of wars and an endless bloody battle for power. It is quite another to feel that you belong to the country that produced “Eugene Onegin” and “War and Peace.” That country is worth defending in endless wars.
Thus every regime hides behind the great poets. And so the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics was not without Natasha Rostova’s first ball.
Mikhail Shishkin’s newest novel in English, The Light and the Dark, was released last month by Quercus (translated by Andrew Bromfield). His first novel in English, Maidenhair, was released by Open Letter Books in 2012 (translated by Marian Schwartz). In all seriousness, Maidenhair is the best work of Russian literature I have read since Master and Margarita. It is that good.