“Suddenly” is a word used often by the Russians. I remember being told once in a writing workshop never to use the word “suddenly.” Only Dostoevsky can use that word, the teacher said.
In 2005, I attended an outstanding lecture series on Russian culture, given by the eminent scholar Andrei Zorin at the Summer Literary Seminar in St. Petersburg. Andrei has lectured at many top U.S. universities and is now at Oxford. A quote he gave from the monarchist Vasily Rozanov caught my attention. Rozanov said that in Russia change happens quickly—in one- two days. Examples given were the disappearance of the Tsar and his Army, the elimination of the Patriarchy under Peter, and, by extension, the demise of the Soviet Union. One day the Hammer and Sickle was flying over The Kremlin, and the next day it was gone.
Writing instructors often say that nothing in fiction happens without a stated or hinted reason. Dostoyevsky uses the word “suddenly” seven times in the first five pages of his short story the White Nights, which was handed out in the seminar. In Russian history it is often the foreign ray, or light, or idea, or perspective that drives Russia, sometimes driving it crazy. Zorin used two words repeatedly in his lecture—“suddenly” and “incredible.” These two words are apt when discussing Russian history and culture.
I held up my hand and suggested to Zorin that it seemed to me that human events do not usually happen suddenly. Like earthquakes, we feel them in a moment, but underneath the causal elements were long before inexorably moving toward the explosion. We, on the surface of things, measuring only what our senses tell us or what we want to believe, feel only the culminating shock. I said I thought the Russian Revolution started with the Peredvizhniki, the Wanderers, those artists who revolted against the art establishment in St. Petersburg in the 1860s and formed under Kramskoi, Perov, and others to express in their art the tragic realism of the common man. “No, it started in the 1830s, with the enlightened writers like Belinsky, Bakunin, etc,” my fellow students cried in response. And they were right. The Soviet Union was crumbling years before the flag came down, but we didn’t know it or didn’t want to know it. The Twin Towers collapsed in 102 minutes. But surely the inertia for that disaster began years before, unnoticed or ignored by our political leaders.
Then on the other hand, there is the predictable unpredictability of everyday Russian life. Here is a recent example. When I arrived in St. Petersburg one day, I called the apartment rental woman at 11 in the morning, as she had asked, to make an appointment to collect the key to the apartment.
She didn’t answer her cell phone. It later turned out that she had forgotten her pre-natal doctor’s appointment. When I did finally get instructions to meet the maid with the key at two, the maid failed to show. It seems she had locked herself in the bathroom of another apartment (can you believe that?) and been stuck there for five hours. I eventually got into the apartment at eight.
Do things happen suddenly, or are the shocks of life always just an ignorance of predicting clues? If we were smart enough to notice and measure all the tremors of coming explosions, we might be prepared for the resulting shocks. But then life, especially ironic Russian life, would not be judged so eloquently by the masters like Dostoevsky.
Like a Russian River
it seems to me,
is much like a Russian river.
It lays unhappily frozen,
obedient within its constraining banks
for a period longer than it can stand.
A warm foreign ray of change
permeates the ice
and the river erupts,
climbing upon itself
moving recklessly down stream
releasing its discontent,
taking everything with it,
the good and the bad—
until it finds its kind of peace
and flows quietly again
with all appearances of normality.
But winter will come again
and how soon
no one knows
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.