Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Russia of My Own -- by Josefina Lundblad

Excerpts with the author's permission, from blog A Russia of My Own. Josefina Lundblad is a 22 year old Swede who teaches Swedish at Ural State University while working on her MA in Russian literature.

Feb 2009 -- Ulitsa Chapaeva where I live.

There’s about half a meter of snow here in Yekaterinburg, and when I went on my run this evening it snowed even more. On Saturday it was minus 34! Now it’s only minus 10....

How can I be sure that I am actually back in Russia, and not somewhere else? Today when I paid with my card at the grocery store, the cashier wasn’t pleased with the way I signed the receipt, so she said to me: “No, no, that won’t do, you have to write like it’s written here, on the back of your card. Can’t you see? Do it again!” No suspicion of fraud, no frown of lip nor brow, just the usual Russian way of dealing with things when correcting the mistakes of sloppy foreigners. I signed it a second time, making it look just like my signature on the card, below my first slapdash signature, and she was pleased.

March -- Last night I called my mom, and then my dad, and spoke with both of them for some forty minutes each, which led my brain to dream in Swedish during the night...

Ksenia and I went to the hospital to visit Marina after her operation.... The hospital is located in the outskirts of Yekat, and because they’re doing ‘remont’ (they’re always doing ‘remont’ in Russia, especially here for some reason) on one of the main roads, we had to drive around it and the bus got stuck in traffic. Only in Russia can one get stuck in traffic on a Sunday! The whole day I kept repeating what I read in my favorite weekly dose of news – Russian Reporter – on Saturday night: «не страна, а анекдот!» (not a country, but an anecdote! or joke). I wasn’t the first to say it, but I have been wanting to say it for a long time. It’s true, the more you think about it, the more you come to realize that you’re not really living in a country, but in an anecdote. And since everybody loves a good anecdote, and Russia is indeed the best one, everybody loves Russia. We brought Marina fruit and juice and chocolate and she looked good... We lingered there for an hour or two, trying to solve Swedish crosswords, but only in the end did we manage to finish one – the one for kids.

July --
Tomorrow I’m heading out into the Urals, the Pilorama Festivale at the former GULAG camp “Perm-36”. It will be a weekend full of all the things I love most in life – Ural nature, Soviet concentration camp and poetry slams!In 1931 Varlam Shalamov stood and looked out over the river Вишера (the Vishera) and thought to himself: Мне уже 24 года и я еще ничего не делал для бессмертия (I am already 24 years old and I haven’t done anything for immortality yet : from his Антироман Вишера, The Vishera Antinovel). In 2009 Josefina stood and looked out over the same river and thought to herself that the first step towards immortality had been taken already some time ago – when I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Varlam began his trip to the GULAG in 1929. On my 24th birthday I had made it, two hours by bus, to Krasnovishersk, a road that took Shalamov five days on foot.

В этой могиле мы умирали 3 суток и всё же не умерли. Крепитесь, товарищи! -- “In this grave we were dying for three days and yet we did not die. Stay strong, comrades!” These famous words on the wall of the cellar of the monastery in Solikamsk, where – possibly – Shalamov spent a night in April 1929, are from his short story “The First Tooth”... in the story he looks up at the wall and sees these words. Not the real graffito, though, this is by Shalamov fans who have written the quote – twice! – there in his honor.

After the museum excursion we tried to have some dinner at the ‘food court’, as I nicknamed the tents which served different kinds of very Russian dishes (buckwheat, anyone?), and were almost successful. We looked at the many different people gathered at the festival and marveled at the amount of tents already in place... Everywhere people were drinking beer – despite the fact that the museum’s website clearly said ‘alcohol forbidden’ – we concluded that Russians do not count beer as alcohol....

I cannot stop reading Evgeniya Ginzburg. I am in love with her. Now she was a real woman. In prison, in labor camps, on Kolyma – she was first and foremost a woman. She makes me proud not only of my sex, but my profession. Who knew being a philologist could be a secret weapon?

November - Memorabilia - oпыт феноменологического рассказа

I remember a late, warm evening one summer somewhere in a small Russian village. He’s waiting for me with hot, black tea in glasses – not cups – and dry cookies in the almost empty kitchen of his little summer house.
The sun is far from setting, though it is already late, and I look around as I step out of the tiny building which is his banya [= sauna] that he has built with his own two hands. I am warm and wet and clean and smell of strawberry soap and birch trees… Everything around me is full of stillness, stillness of the coming night, stillness remaining after another lazy summer day in the countryside; the trees are bending down heavy over the small garden and the blue, cloudy sky seems lower and lower by the hour, but it is not going to rain; no, tonight it will not rain. I wrap the towel around my wet hair, leaving a couple of strands to fall down my damp back…

The front door is open and he’s standing there, smoking his BelamorKanal [the White Sea Canal, one of Stalin's GULAG megaprojects], watching me as I step down the little stone path leading from the banya up to the house. The house is almost empty now. We’re the only ones here now. His wife is in the hospital. He has been alone for three weeks and now I’m here to clean off the dirt of dusty Russian summer roads that I’ve walked, walked, walked barefoot while picking berries in the fields and looking around me in the woods and thinking that after all, despite of everything: this must be it.

I remember how he cared for me that evening; I remember how he turned out to be something of a country gentleman... from another time very long ago. I remember his heavy grey eyebrows and his long, straight forehead, and his hair that lay like curly silver on top of his large head, and those big, blue eyes as he placed the glass in front of me on the table. I sit down on the chair by the table; he places himself on the bed behind the table as to be closer to me. We talked of old times and of his wife and he told me of his grand children and I listened to his soft voice echoing in such a poor room… There was nothing on the walls. Not even a single picture. Except for the icon over the stove. There was only one single, lonely light bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was the only light. The cookies placed on the wooden table without anything underneath them. The glass was old and steaming with hot tea. I sip and he sips as he watches me and I remember how I liked the way his blue eyes kept looking at me. I remember his large hands, I remember how they lay so still placed on his knees and how we discussed old times and how I couldn’t help but not to forget that we belong to different generations; of this we also talked and he sat so close to me and kept filling my glass with more tea and never tired of caring for me. He didn’t let a single glance of mine pass unseen. His name is Anatoly, but he insist I call him Tolya. Uncle Tolya. I do not object; I call him uncle Tolya and he smiles. Sitting there in that kitchen in a Russian summer house that evening made me remember another kitchen in another Russian summer house two summers before this….

I remember waking up in the double bed next to ___, on white, wet sheets; I remember stretching out my arms to touch the yellow sunrays coming in through the open window; his body was sweaty and young next to mine and I was wearing a purple silk nightgown and we had the entire house to ourselves. We had the entire day to ourselves. We had the entire world to ourselves. There was nothing outside our window but blue sky and green trees and deep Russian woods and somewhere, further down the road, a river running through from somewhere, and all of this belonged to us. We were young and we had never promised each other anything, and in the mornings I would make him breakfast while he walked the dog – yes, there was a dog, we had a dog – I fried eggs, made a salad from fresh vegetables that I picked in the garden, brewed black coffee and cleaned the table from what had been left there the night before: an empty wine bottle, a torn copy of some Murakami book in a poor Russian translation, a half-empty package of condoms… And then we sat there and ate together, playing with each other laughing about something, drinking our coffee slowly and looking out over the garden, expecting nothing but another hot day filled with sunshine. I remember we took long walks together with the dog. I remember how we sat together in the dark in the evenings and read Murakami together, how we discussed everything and nothing and then it really seemed to me that there would be no end to this summer. That there would be no end to our youth, that we would always be this young and that this summer house would forever stand in sunshine and warmth and that the fall would never come, that our arguments would never begin, we would never fight, we would never have any worries every again but stay like this. Right there. I remember running through the wet grass in the evenings down to the lake after sitting in the banya for an hour, sweating and beating each other’s naked bodies with birch trees… I remember jumping into the water, I remember swimming side by side with him; I can’t forget the way the grass felt against my bare feet, how the water felt to my naked body, how free we were that summer. It was as if everything in the whole world was just us: the house, the dog, he, I.

This and following photo: Tanya Emshanova's Ural series on

I remember standing outside in the small garden with uncle Tolya, we’re standing barefoot in together the grass and he’s smoking BelamorKanal and I’m smoking what he calls ‘women’s cigarettes’; it is dark outside now. The sun has set, the moon has come out. We’re watching our shadows on the grass in front of us, the light coming from the kitchen is behind us and falls before us on the grass. His shade is bigger than mine; his shoulders are broad, the smoke coming from his cigarette is thicker, fuller than the smoke coming from mine. My hair has almost dried now and I remember letting it out of the towel as we stand there looking at our two shadows – so different and yet almost the same – on the ground before us and in silence we contemplate. Somehow both of us know that life must go on, that life always goes on, that I will have to take my things and walk back from where I came, that his wife will come back from the hospital, and that we’ll never have an evening together like this again. We want to tell each other what’s important, what matters, and I remember thinking that even in silence, even when we’re not saying anything, we’re still staying within the territory of what matters the most, what is truly important in this world. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone,” I say and he nods. “What makes you think that?” “All of this is so new to me…” He smiles: “It is new to all of us, my dear.” “Can you love more than once in your life?” “You can love a million times,” he answers. “But will it ever be like the first time?” “Every time is special, every time is a universe in itself,” he says and continues: “Every relationship is a world of its own, and you will never know that world if you don’t close your eyes and let go and fall into it with your back first… keeping your arms stretched out as if you wanted to fly, as if you not only could fly, but knew that this is the time that you’ll really soar.” “I think I’m scared,” I say.
I remember how uncle Tolya looked at me, how his stern face of an old man who’s served over thirty years in the Russian army broke into the kindest, the warmest glow and how his one hand took a hold of mine. “I don’t know what it is like for you young people these days…” “I think it is nothing new, I think it is the same as it was for you, just…” “Just?” “Just nothing.” He smiles again and again and again. “I want to love another man now, and I want to give him everything, but I’ve already given everything once and that…” “We’re not in this for eternity, we’re in it for the moment,” says uncle Tolya. “It is not about forever?” I ask. He shakes his head. “No, my dear, it is all about now.”

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