Leningrad and the Solitude of an Internationalist
“No one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten”. That is what is engraved in Gold on the granite stone, right behind the statue of the Motherland, spreading her arms in grief.
The Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery is in the city of St. Petersburg –186 mass graves and about half a million people are buried there, including most of my family from the maternal side.
During World War II, for 900 days (2 and a half years), the city of Leningrad stood firm, defying the most horrific siege in modern history. It stopped the advance of the Nazi troops, withstood constant aerial bombardments, bitter cold, hunger and the lack of all basic necessities. Almost half the population vanished, was burnt by bombs, frozen in trenches and in unheated flats, or was starved to death.
This cultural capital of Russia performed the ultimate sacrifice: rising in defiance and courage, playing an important role in defeating Nazism, and thus in saving the world.
All of this while most of the West, either collaborated with Nazism or tried to ‘appease’ it.
Naturally the USSR in general and Leningrad in particular, did not save the world that belonged to the white race; it saved the world of “non-humans”, according to the German Fascists, of exterminable beings: people from Indian sub-Continent, Africans, Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Slavs, most of the Asians and Arabs.
And by smashing Fascism, colonialism also received a decisive blow (as Fascism and colonialism are made of the similar stuff), allowing dozens of nations in Asia and Africa to gain independence, and freedom. At least for some time; at least until the Western nations managed to regroup.
This was, naturally, never forgiven in the European and North American capitals. The Soviet Union and all its ideals and principles had been dragged through the dirt and vilified. Although it saved the world from Nazism, it became common to compare it to Fascist Germany, and many progressive Western intellectuals adopted this twisted and insulting judgment.
As I sat on a bench near the Statue Of The Motherland, I was in the company of Artem Kirpichenok, one of the leading Russian historians; a Jew who lived in Israel for 15 years, but decided to return to his native St Petersburg after becoming disillusioned with racism and the institutionalized discrimination of the minorities living in the Jewish State.
“It is incredible that Western propaganda succeeded in making most people all over the world believe that Nazism and Soviet Communism are comparable”, I said. “Even some progressive intellectuals are pronouncing both ‘–isms’ in one single breath.”
“Nazi Germany, the same as England, USA and France, was based on racist and colonialist mindset, widely accepted principles among the Western bourgeoisie in the 1930s”, uttered Artem Kirpichenok. “Hitler was building his empire in Eastern Europe on the British colonial design in India. Nazi racial theories did not differ too much from the racism in the US South or from the racial theories of French, Belgian, British or Dutch empires implemented in the colonies. The collapse of the Third Reich hit hard on all those ideals of colonialism and racism. And the Soviet Union was mainly to ‘blame’ for that collapse. The ideological basis of the European dominance over Asia, Africa and Latin America had been damaged.”
That could of course never be forgiven.
During the siege, my maternal grandmother dug trenches on the outskirts of the city. She fought the Germans, and was decorated for her courage on several occasions. I have no idea how she did it, how she managed to fight and to survive – she was so gentle, fragile and very shy. Many years after the war, years after I was born, whilst she was reading me poems and fairy tales, I would find it very difficult to imagine her holding a Kalashnikov, hand grenades or even a shovel. But she did; she fought, and she was ready to die for what she then thought, was the epic battle for the survival of humanity. And she came very close to dying on several occasions.
She was an Orthodox Christian lady, but also a firm supporter of Communism, a rare combination. She married my grandfather, a brilliant Muslim man from the Chinese minority in Kazakhstan, Husain Ischakov, a linguist and a Commissar of Health and later for Food Supply (basically a ministerial post in the old days).
What followed was a fragment that appeared as if it had been cut directly from official Western propaganda. My grandfather fell out of favor with Stalin, was arrested and executed. In 1937, (the first earliest memory my mom had from her ‘childhood’) this tall and elegant man was bent over the cradle, lifting my mom in his arms, and pressing her against his chest, before being led away by the agents of the State, to oblivion and eternity. He cried as he looked at her face; he knew exactly what was ahead. He never came back.
My grandmother fought. She was decorated. But nonetheless, after the War was over, she was arrested and thrown into jail for ‘marrying an enemy of the State”. She spent years in prison, while my mother went through hell, virtually an orphan. When my grandma was released from prison, she said to my mother: “It was so terrible that I thought; two more weeks and I would hang myself there”. But she never betrayed my grandfather: all she had to do was to sign that she ‘regretted’ marrying him. She never did. Obviously, her loyalty was more important to her, than her own life.
She left that jail, still an Orthodox Christian, and still a Communist!
My grandfather’s name was eventually ‘cleared’; he was made a ’hero’ again posthumously. Books were written about him, and my mother was allowed to study architecture.
What happened to my family was of course brutal and terrible. And to claim that the USSR was some paradise on Earth would be insane.
But we are talking about 1930s and 1940s. And in that context, the USSR was definitely more humane than Western Europe or the United States. To dispute that would be to deny the most basic statistics.
“Let us compare”, I was repeatedly told by the greatest Southeast Asian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was nominated countless times for the Nobel Prize for literature but never received one because, unlike Solzhenitsyn, he was imprisoned in the wrong – pro-Western – concentration camps. “Let us remember that everything occurs in some historical context.”
Western propaganda managed to put to work some tremendously effective lies, half-truths and outright fabrications, that could not be checked or disputed (not that most of the people would even try): the number of victims in the gulags were exaggerated, and were regularly combined with the numbers of both political and common criminals (in the Stalin era, everybody convicted of any crime was put to work, in some sort of labor camp with terrible conditions, as the country was still poor. Many prisoners never returned).
Some members of the Soviet intellectual and military elites (including my grandfather) were executed. But was it just because of ‘Stalinist terror’? Many analysts (Russian, Chinese and others) now claim that the Nazi spy apparatus thoroughly infiltrated Soviet intelligence. Germany wanted to get rid of the most talented, loyal and tolerant Soviet leaders and Generals. They identified them, and then began injecting and spreading the most damaging, but fabricated information about their disloyalty. My grandfather was, for instance, executed on the charge of ‘spying for Japan’, a ridiculous but somehow ‘logical’ charge as he was a linguist, and spoke several Asian languages.
On top of that, Stalin and those around him, had plenty to be ‘paranoid’ about: the hostility of the West towards the young Communist state was apparent. The USSR was attacked by the US, UK, and ravaged by brutal Czech Legions and other invading forces.
Anyone with a drop of objectivity would have to admit (unless he or she would be set on denying the basic principle of humanism, which declares that all people are equal, regardless of their race and or nationality) that the Communist Soviet Union committed much lesser amounts of crime than the Western countries under the banner of ‘constitutional monarchies’ or ‘multi-party democracies’.
While the Soviets were busy pulling tens of millions out of poverty (and we are talking, for instance, about the Muslims of the Middle East, the areas where the standard of living eventually reached that of the European parts of Russia, as well as the other countless minorities inhabiting this enormous country), in approximately the same era the Belgians managed to kill around 10 million people in Congo, chopping off their hands and burning women and children in their huts alive.
The Germans committed a monstrous genocide (or call it Holocaust) against the Herero tribe in Namibia, for no other apparent reason than because they seemed to dislike their members. The first concentration camps on earth were built by the British Empire in Africa, and the French colonial onslaughts are well documented in Southeast Asia, in West and North Africa and elsewhere. The Dutch plundered, raped, killed and enriched themselves on a great archipelago that is now called Indonesia.
The genocides, mass murder and terror that were spread by the West, in the rest of the world, have been countless, but of course under-reported, as ‘foreign aid’ for education and the media, managed to train and discipline collaborators in the poor world, securing that the truth about the past would be generally omitted.
Even the end of World War II did not bring to an end, the bestial treatment of ‘the natives’ at the hands of the European and North American colonialists. One should recall the treatment of the people of the Middle East, by Winston Churchill and other glorified British leaders. All this is of course well documented, including in the books written by Churchill himself, but hardly mentioned by the disciplined and reliable mainstream media and academia, in both the colonizing and colonized nations.
There are countless statues of Winston Churchill or the Belgian King Leopold II, all over capitals of Europe.
In the second half of the 20th Century, during the so called ‘Cold War’, the Soviet Union stood firmly on the side of the oppressed, on the side of the liberation struggles, for freedom in Africa, Asia and Latin America. One has to wonder how mighty has been the propaganda that has made it all to be forgotten?
While Europe and the United States (and their constitutional monarchies and multi-party ‘democracies’) cultivated despots in Iran, Egypt, the Gulf, the Middle East, South Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia and so many other unfortunate places, the Soviet Union stood by the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Tanzanian and North Vietnamese revolutions, it supported the leaders, true heroes and liberators like Patrice Lumumba and President Salvador Allende.
And both of us – Noam Chomsky and I - came to the conclusion during our recent debate at MIT, that the standards of living in Riga, Prague or East Berlin were allowed to be significantly higher than in Moscow, while those of Tashkent or Samarkand were just marginally lower. The standard of living in the colonies and the client states of the West were ten, twenty, even a hundred times lower than those in Washington, Paris or London, often resulting in the loss of millions of human lives.
I calculated that some 55 million lives have been lost since World War II as a result of Western colonialism, neocolonialism, direct invasions, sponsored coups and other acts of international terror. I am probably grossly under-estimating the numbers, as there were lives lost to famines, terrible mismanagement, and the outright misery triggered by Western imperialism.
Tens of millions of lives were further lost as a result of the terrible seeds planted by imperialism and colonialism, the most obvious case being the Partition of the Sub-Continent.
I would suggest that instead of comparing Fascism and Soviet Communism, the Left and the entire thinking world would begin comparing what is truly comparable: the Fascism, Western colonialism and market fundamentalism (the most violent fundamentalist faith on earth today), served and represented by “Western multi-party systems” and “Constitutional monarchies”.
When I meet a new person, which happens with a great frequency, to me there is nothing more frightening than the most simple and natural question: “Where are you from?”
I don’t know what to say, I cannot answer and even if I could, the reply would be too blurry, too complex, and too philosophical. On top of that, unless I would opt for some long and detailed answer, the information I would give would be very inaccurate.
I am a dedicated Internationalist, but it is not taken as an identity by the majority of those that I meet.
My interviewers and reviewers often choose Prague, the former Czechoslovakia or the present day Czech Republic as my identity, but it is thoroughly false. Prague was never my home. Czechoslovakia was where I endured a hellish childhood, where during the winter, I had my shoes filled with urine and then the other kids would let them freeze outside the school or gym, one of countless punishments for my having an “Asian mother”. It is where I had to fight after each class, from the age of six for my life, simply because my mother was not just half Asian, but because she was also half Russian.
My true identity is truly spread all around: it lies deep and high in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes where I faced death on several occasions while covering the Peruvian “Dirty War”. It is in Chile, bouncing from the walls of the narrow, winding and often haunted streets of the coastal city of Valparaiso – it lies with Chilean poets and with the songs of fishermen at its coast. My identity is spread throughout that enormous body of water of the South Pacific Ocean dotted with tiny specks of land – now ‘island nations’ that were colonized and utterly destroyed by the traditional colonial powers.
My identity is from the Swahili coast of Africa and around the Great Lakes of the continent, in all those places that underwent the worst genocide in modern history, the genocide triggered by the European and North American political and economic interests. My identity also lies in the deserts of the Middle East, and if I knew the Sub-Continent in just a bit more in detail, it would be there as well. I am at home in Havana, Caracas, Buenos Aires, Onomichi, Beijing, Cape Town and Kuala Lumpur. And I also live in Japan, Indonesia and Kenya.
It is a total mess, I know, it is very confusing and I cannot explain it, but that’s how it is.
For years, even decades, my home was where there was a struggle for justice and independence; I have been writing books and articles, making films or getting directly involved in the struggle. I can hardly identify my race, culture or national identity, anymore and I don’t even try to. I go where I am needed. And at the end, also, as Garcia Marquez wrote: my home is where they read my books.
I was born in Russia, in Leningrad (I am sorry, but I simply cannot call it St. Petersburg, as it is called now, it will always remain Leningrad to me). I had never lived there, because my parents took me to Czechoslovakia when I was just a few months old. But every year, my mother would put me on a plane, one of those old Soviet Tupolev jets with mahogany tables, lampshades and black caviar served on all the international flights, in just one single class, to send me to Leningrad where my grandmother would be waiting for me, armed with a set of keys to some humble rented room in the Bay Of Finland, a room which, for me, was like a paradise. My grandmother was always armed with endless tickets and passes to the opera houses, ballet performances and art exhibitions. In the Communist days they cost nothing, but it was not easy to get them.
And she had piles of books waiting for me. I let her read to me, even though I was able to read myself. She read to me until it was late into the night and when it rained outside, the moments were especially magic.
From the moment I left Leningrad, I began counting the days left till my return. I had my special secret book where I marked each day that had passed. The cold deep water of the Neva River, its bridges, the open spaces, the beauty of this former Russian capital so often covered by fog, the pathos of Russian and then Soviet history, the pathos of the history of my own family – all this captivated my mind, made me dream, made me prematurely adult.
In Czechoslovakia, my mother missed Russia terribly. She cried almost every night. She read books to me, too, and a lot of poetry.
Like this, I had no childhood naturally, but they managed to make a writer out of me at an extremely early age. I inherited their struggle, their 900 days of Siege, their war, their Russia.
Both women passed everything on to me, but it was not just the suffering, the prisons and the wars, but also great hope, the ability to dream, enthusiasm, optimism, as well as great solidarity. They taught me that one could always build from nothing or rebuild from the ashes. And that love, if it is true love, is not something that does disappear, nor does it vanish in one month or even in several years.
They also passed on to me the love for their city; their lost but never forgotten love.
Now, after all those years I came back to Leningrad. By now I was much more Latin American or Asian, than Russian. My native tongue was suddenly feeling so heavy and rusty: it was still perfect in terms of pronunciation but archaic and over-polite.
I returned exhausted, after launching my big book in London – the book about Indonesia, and how the West had ruined it after the 1965 US-sponsored coup. I returned after just finishing my 160 minutes documentary film on the genocide in DR Congo, and after working at the Ugandan and then on Turkish-Syrian border.
I suddenly felt lonely and I was desperately longing to tell my story to someone dear to me. But it so happened that no one joined me in Leningrad.
I wandered through the streets, so beloved and yet so foreign.
I went to the old beach at Zelenogorsk, but it had changed, the marina was dotted with private boats and yachts instead of my old tugboats and patrol vessels.
I went to visit the forest where the dead body of my grandfather was thrown from the train. Now it was the memorial cemetery, in fact a haunted forest with the names and photographs nailed to the trees. I did not want to travel here from the city where I was born, from Leningrad. I wanted to come here from Helsinki, from a neutral place, but it was not meant to be.
The forest was quiet. There were a few mourners, but otherwise total silence. My Muslim, Communist, Chinese grandfather was here. My grandfather, a linguist, the Minister of Health of Kazakhstan, a man who gave his entire life to the revolution, but fell out of favor and was killed, thrown into this quiet forest, without any respect or any rituals.
It was easy to draw conclusions, to condemn everything. But I had heard enough about him to know that he would not betray his beliefs, just as my grandmother had never done.
Before she died, I asked my grandmother: “You never re-married. You remained beautiful for decades after my grandfather died. Why?”
She smiled her unpretentious smile: “Your grandfather”, she said, “Was a very big man. It is extremely rare to meet a man like that. Others never even came up to his shoulder”. And she did not mean my grandfather’s height.
He was a Communist, and what it meant to him, was simply the process of building a much better world than the one he knew from his childhood.
In the forest, I sat on the grass. It was cold. After all those wars that I had covered, after the 145 countries I had visited, the dozens of books and films I had produced, after all that struggle, I suddenly felt the need to cling to someone, just for this moment; I needed to speak, to be held, to tell the story, from the beginning to the end. I was never the one into autobiographies, but now I needed to be understood. But in the end I came alone, with just my Leica and a tiny book of poetry written by Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, one of the Cuban 5 - patriots imprisoned brutally in Miami.
My entire maternal family was broken and scattered. But we were all fighters. Like my grandmother and grandfather I had to go on: I had to struggle and fight for what I believe in. Like them I knew how short life is, how little time there is, how precious it is and how mighty the enemy is.
Later I travelled on the legendary Leningrad metro, with all those underground palaces, and the old Soviet-era dilapidated carriages.
I kept reading Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, the bi-lingual Spanish and Russian, edition that was given to me in Kiev, by the translator of my writing.
El amor que expira no es amor
El verdadero amor pertenece
A todo el tiempo, a la tierra toda,
Sin temor enfrenta tempestades,
Resiste hasta el filo de la muerte
Y, como la natura, es eterno.
In this stunning poem written in a Miami prison, Rodriguez argues that love that can pass is not really love. That true love could resist even death itself and is, like nature, eternal.
I noticed that a young lady was reading over my shoulder. After a while, she asked me in passable Spanish: “Is it true what it says?” Also in Spanish I replied: “Yes, they are in prison, all of them. It is terrible.”
“It is not what I mean”, she said with certain urgency. “Is it true what it says? That love is eternal or it is not love?”
I was stunned, as this would not have happened even in Buenos Aires, this exchange could only take place in Havana… and here. Then I realized that after all, this was my city, the city where poets were read by the millions, and the city that made me a writer. I looked at the girl, looked her straight in the eyes and replied in Russian: “My grandparents thought so. I don’t know if it is truth but I always lived as if it is.”
The girl nodded. She said nothing, but as she was leaving the car at the next station, she gave me the most brilliant smile I have received in years. Obviously the city had its way to give me strength.
Outside, on the bank of Neva River, I briefly put my forehead on the granite wall that separated the sidewalk from the enormous waterway. The stone was cold, refreshing.
Leningrad did not try to hold me. It was too proud, too enormous. But I felt it was embracing me, before sending me back to war, to the battle. I had to carry on the legacy of those who were fighting for the survival of the humanity in the 1940s. I knew all those places that were under siege; I knew so many places on this earth that were worse than any hell professed by religious theories. I really knew so many of them. I was obliged to fight and to work, day and night.
As Rodriguez and others realized, one has to fight when men, women and children are being slaughtered, when entire nations and cultures are being destroyed. When injustice is called justice and in the name of it, cruelty reigns.
With the deep waters of the Neva in front of me, I whispered as I had when I was a child addressing the city: “Now I will go, but I will come back. Please wait for me.”
Andre Vltchek (http://andrevltchek.weebly.com/) is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in South Pacific is called Oceania and is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Oceania-André-Vltchek/dp/1409298035 His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and its market-fundamentalist model, is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”
He recently produced and directed the 160 minutes documentary film “Rwandan Gambit” about the pro-Western regime of Paul Kagame and its plunder of DR Congo, and “One Flew Over Dadaab” about the biggest refugee camp on earth.
After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently lives and works in East Asia and Africa.