Alexander Arkadyevich Genis 1927-2006

Story posted on March 9, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Alexander Genis


He outlived Soviet system by five years.

"A five-year plan," he would have said, because even in America he remained imbued with his native concepts. For him, his native meant the USSR.

Living in this country, he pretended it didn’t exist. Now, when neither he nor it exists any longer, I ask myself why they turned out to be inseparable in the end. Father hated the Soviet system and yet he owed everything to it—everything in his life that was good and everything that was bad. He spent his old age trying to separate one from the other.

Usually, the country outlives the human being, but when it does occasionally predecease him it seems somehow that Clio, the Muse of History, made a typo. Father wouldn’t have agreed with it, of course. He was right, because his life wasn’t worthless. It was so large, in fact, that it didn’t fit into even the 900 pages of his memoirs, which he began with the description of his beloved corner of the Jewish market in Kiev. He titled it Mein Kampf—not the first author to do so, of course, and not even the second one. Indeed, he always fought against the circumstances, and won by means of straightforward selfishness, untamable love of life and civil disobedience. A soldier of the invisible front, Father spent half a century fighting a country which he learned to love only in his old age. Refusing to admit that his life was an error of history, he could not accept the death of a state from which he never expected anything good.

Perhaps he was right in this as well. In a book by a Moscow philosopher I once found a thought that affected me. (That was before I passed on that book, altogether too wise for its own good, to Pakhomov, who promptly dropped it into his borscht.)

The book contained the following observation: "It has been said that the USSR passed away. Nonesense. The subconscious never dies." Father was, in fact, the subconscious. His reactions were revealing. He could not survive a single day without big-time politics. He always knew what others were supposed to do. If the subconscious is the indissoluble residue of history, it is what ties us all together. Especially in emigration, a place from where it is easier to cast a glance back and to locate it on the map. The map’s two-dimensional vastness has a tendency to hypnotize—but only us, judging from the response of some Canadians whom I specifically asked about it and whose country also takes up a substantial portion of the globe. The map had a traumatic effect upon Father. He couldn’t stand it to change.

I love the land where I grew up the same way a radish loves its patch. But Father preached large-scale, geographic patriotism, like a migratory bird’s. He loved to travel, too. Father dreamt of the West like a Muslim dreams of Paradise or a Jew dreams of Messiah. He shared this dream with all his countrymen and he never worried about what we could expect there. The West was our Everest. "Because it is there," was Edmund Hillary’s reply when he was asked why bother to climb it. But Father had no way of reaching it. Even when he agreed to include Yugoslavia in the West, just because it was ruled by Tito, declared "a bloody hound" not long before. Having settled at the westernmost edge of his country, Father took planes everywhere he was allowed to fly. From Riga, in essence, all the roads led East.

As a professor of civic aviation, he visited every airport in the country. He knew Magadan and Kushka. It was pointless to play Hangman with him, using city and town names as a clue. Moreover, he remembered every good meal he had at any airport. An experienced citizen of his dangerous country, Father felt at home in every single part of it. The Soviet territory, one sixth of the area of dry land on the globe, lay before him like a flat bed sheet, without a single wrinkle.

"The Soviet system can exist only in an isomorphic space," he would say, and use a fifth-grade rhyme to prove it:
Pythagorean trousers you too can use
Because the squares of its two short legs
Add up to the square of the hypotenuse.

In fact, Father couldn’t care less. It was his sacred belief that the entire Soviet nation was held together by powerful anti-Soviet sentiments. Having grasped the perverse nature of the regime, Father knew all of its distortions and how to use them. Naturally, his hero was Ostap Bender. All the more so because they entered life at the same time. He loved to quote the 12 Chairs: "On Friday, April 15, 1927," a sentence which appears early in the novel and which mentions his birthday.

Like Bender, Father was not afraid of waiters, doormen and hotel administrators. He knew how to flatter them, to appear more important, to pass around small bribes and to get along with policemen and collective farmers.

He knew not to confuse individuals and principles. Of the latter, he had none, and he belonged to no political party. Knowing that the system attacks its own faithful first, Father forbade me to join the Young Communist League, which didn’t hurt us but didn’t help us either. You could never win with the Soviet system. It would even defeat itself. Three times History destroyed Father’s life, from top to bottom. Like in a fairy tale, where everything happens three times. Appropriately, it too had a happy ending, since he died in his own bed, reading the very same Ilf and Petrov—this time, their America, One Story High.

The first time, his world was destroyed by the Germans. He was evacuated together with some Gypsies. In fact, when I was little, both he and I were often mistaken for Gypsies. Taking into account the situation, Father, then 14 years old, took War and Peace on the journey. The classic would prove useful. In the tabor, few people ever read Tolstoy. Strangers would be touched, and give him bread.

The second time was more difficult. Father was working on the first early warning radar system in Ryazan. He believed it to be a safeguard of peace, worked seven days a week, flew with test pilots and got paid so much he needed to bring along a briefcase on the payday. He was the first man in town to own a Pobeda motor car. He reached the pinnacle of success by the time he was 30, and then crashed back to earth. Emulating Khrushchev, Father expressed his opinion of Stalin’s personality cult.

We settled in Riga because the city had chimney sweeps wearing uniforms straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. There, Father started out again as a political nonentity and became one once more when he was kicked out of his Institute after his close friend asked for political asylum in Britain. Twenty years later, the minutes of that nasty meeting miraculously arrived to the United States. Reading them, I discovered that Father behaved with impeccable decency. It was all the more surprising since he used to quote Epicurus to me: "'Live without drawing attention to yourself,’" he would say, and then elaborate further, the better to drive the massage home: "The most important thing is not to stick your head out."

Naturally, he was unable to convince either me or himself. Nevertheless, he was never a dissident. He was a complicated man, much like everybody else in that convoluted country. He was a Soviet man. Knowing fully well whose fault it all was, he didn’t allow the regime to destroy his life, and whenever it did nevertheless happen, Father behaved like a marooned Polar explorer. He waited for Spring to come while engaging in some interesting activity. When he lost his job, he learned to make books out of heretical pages torn out of journals and magazines from the time of Khrushchev’s Thaw.

The point is that Father wanted freedom more than anything else, with an ardent indifference to what it was. He mistook it for the ability to read what is forbidden. He didn’t care whether it was Trotsky, Playboy or Avtorkhanov. He learned English in order to subscribe to the Daily Worker, the newspaper published by nonexistent British communists. (During the Prague Spring, it used to publish Dubcek.) Censorship imbued his life with meaning. Getting around it became his hobby. The only reason I was raised reading good books was, essentially, because they were hard to find. Seeing books as a fetish of freedom, Father respected them as much as Brodsky did, who once publicly predicted that life in Russia would be changed forever once Andrei Platonov’s novel The Pit was published there. Solzhenitsyn also felt the same way—about his own books.

But, unlike those two, Father believed changes in Russia to be complete, and so he forgave Putin.

"The thing about Russia is that you should never hold a grudge," he used to say to me. "But only if you live on Long Island," I would reply sarcastically, but to no avail. Father took genuine offense on behalf of the State. He was angry with the Latvians, with the Ukrainians, even with the Jews. He considered Stalin a villain, Khrushchev a fool, Brezhnev a nonentity and Yeltsin a drunk. But, unexpectedly, he fell in love with the current president, hoping that Putin will show everyone, will become a new Ivan Kalita and restore the old contours of the map. On the way back, Father’s disagreements with the regime lost their poignancy and were brushed aside. Perhaps Father felt that the importance of his own life and personality was directly proportionate to the size of the county which he had been so happy to leave behind.

I could vaguely guess that the evolution of the spirit is linked to the age of the body. With the passage of years he kept losing if not his anger, at least its meaning, or the ontological foundations without which it is difficult to live through the day. Repeating itself and dissolving, the waning life needed injections of history. As he grew older, Father unwittingly tried to compensate his own weakness with others’ strength. Father missed a Motherland—the one with the epaulets, the jackboots and the rockets. This doesn’t mean that he approved of the Communists, to say nothing of Eduard Limonov. Instead, he was rather drawn to Alexander III, who also believed that Russia had only two allies, its Army and its Navy. Obviously, Father didn’t wish for war. He wanted everyone to know their place and to stick to it even in a collapsed Empire. Nostalgia for fear and greatness filled the emptying soul. He watched Moscow television, read ideologists of the strong state, criticized the liberal Yabloko party, defended Yanukovich, supported Bush and argued with me about all these things.

"What would have happened if Americans had come to liberate the Soviet Union from Brezhnev as they came to Iraq to free it from Saddam?" I kept questioning Father like a Jesuit.
"We would have fought to the last drop of our blood."
"We who?"
"It’s a good question."

In his old age, Father became an ardent patriot of both countries which his life straddled. When their interests conflicted, he never felt any confusion. I didn’t either, but only because I stubbornly distrust the old country just as much as I distrust my "new" Motherland, as it is mystifyingly termed in immigrant periodicals. Nevertheless, we used to be kind of friends. Especially after the State bestowed upon me the right to vote on the day I became of age, whereas Father gave me a briefcase with an engraved plaque: "As You Reach Puberty".It was only in America that we began quarrelling. Perhaps I went too far when I claimed that all those who lived under Stalin had to be stripped of their right to vote--by law. "A totalitarian regime stays in the soul like strontium in the bones," was my argument. Father thought I was an idiot.

In America, his political views were typically shared by rednecks. A redneck is a person who can drop anything he is doing to watch somebody changing a flat tire.

"They are the backbone of the nation," was Father’s response to my sarcasm.
"It is not your nation."
"Which is too bad," was his usual reply. Father shared with them the preferred solution to all complex international issues: "Nuke them."

Other immigrants hold similar views. Especially in Israel, where a couple of intellectual friends once explained to me over dinner why all negotiations are pointless.

"Palestinians understand only an atomic bomb," declared the wife.
"A hydrogen bomb, my love," the husband corrected her heatedly.

We sat at the nicely laid out table in their Moscow-style cozy apartment. Their windows looked over a tidy little park with a checkpoint. Beyond it began that very same hopeless Palestine on which they proposed to drop the bomb.

What can I say? I am like this too. I’m a Soviet man too, the second, posthumous generation.

"You know," Father would say to me, tired of our arguments. "It was a mistake to think that we lived in the USSR. The USSR lives on inside us."