Wednesday, March 30, 2011




I have never claimed to be the go-to person for "current events," but the other day I may have surpassed myself.

I was chatting with a friend when she announced that she was thinking of taking a trip to Poland.

"Is that so?" I said politely, thinking dreamily of Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Szymborska, St. Maximilian Kolbe. "Now is Poland still part of Russia?" 

"Part of…Russia?" she inquired.

"Yeah, you know. The U.S.S.R."

I could tell by the look on her face that I'd committed yet another mortifying gaffe. I'm used to such looks, having stopped watching TV sometime around the time "Mr. Ed" concluded its run. I'm used to hearing, say, "That was a drag about Elizabeth Edwards, hunh," and responding, “Who?” “You know,” my friend will say, “John Edwards' wife?” “Now is he a singer or what,” I’ll grope. “No, wait, he plays basketball?” “Heather, he ran for Vice President. He cheated on her. While she had cancer! He...oh, forget it.”

Anyway, imagine my surprise to consult wikipedia and find that "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Russia for short, was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991."

Hey, in 1991 I'd just moved to L.A. and was looking for a job, okay? I was busy that year. I knew something had been going on over there since Sputnik: Glasnost, Chernobyl, Gorbachev, and now, who, Putin, is that his name?

But no, seriously, I try to stay abreast. The problem is my brain tends to skip over everything that isn’t some form of non-political human interest story: bizarre crimes, medical mishaps, backwoods blues singers, obituaries. I’m always dutifully trying to memorize who’s on what side in which war, but no sooner do I get things straight than the battle lines shift again. I can only get my mind around very clear concepts like light and darkness, good and evil, and even now, when I hear “Rwanda,” I have to pause and call to mind the mnemonic device of “Hutu/hate” to remember which side was which.

The fact is, I feel very close to Russia. I've seen Andrei Rublev. I drank a ton of Popov vodka. I keep a whole file of Dostoevsky quotes. I can tell you where I was when I read War and Peace (on the island of Syros, Greece, wasted on retsina). I've practically memorized the passage where Ivan Ilych dies. I've pored over Chekhov’s stories, plays and, especially, letters.  

And I may not know what's going on now, but I totally knew they were in big, big trouble before.  In fact, a few years ago I read a whole slew of amazing books by people who'd been in the prison camps: The Arctic Death Camps by Robert Conquest, Richard Würmbrand’s Christ in the Communist Prisons, The Accused by Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, Kolyma, and perhaps my favorite: The Woman Who Could Not Die by Julia de Beausobre. Upon learning that her husband Nicolay, imprisoned in another camp, had been shot, Beausobre wrote:

"Look down right into the depths of your heart and tell me--Is it not right for you to be kind to [your torturers] Even to them? Particularly to them, perhaps? Is it not right that those men who have no kindness within them should get a surplus of it flowing towards them from without?"

After which I also read her Flame in the Snow: A Life of Saint Serafim of Sarov.

So while I may not be able to quote you chapter and verse of Russia’s political history,

I know their long history of solitary pilgrimage: St. Serafim, the anonymous wandering monk who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim, Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I know their long history of loving and seeking Christ. I know that they have suffered, unbelievably.

I know (because I’m reading French philosopher René Girard’s The Scapegoat) that Kierkegaard said “The mob is a lie” and that [Swiss literary critic Jean] “Starobinski notes that evil in the Gospels is always on the side of plurality and the crowd,” to which I would add the collective, the bloc, the movement, the ideology. I know that the people who rail against religion can not have looked too closely at what happens when those in power try to stamp it out. I know that simply converting from communism to capitalism isn’t going to sate Russia’s spiritual hunger, because look at us.

I know that estimates for the number of people who died in Stalin’s purges, deportations, exiles, famines and prison camps is estimated to be between 4 and 10 million. 

I know the way I purge, deport and exile in my own heart and that is why my plea, all day, every day, is the Jesus Prayer from The Way of a Pilgrim: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I know this line from Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “There is great satisfaction in remaining faithful; perhaps it is the greatest satisfaction of all. Even if no one knows about your faithfulness, even if no one values it.”

I know that Dostoevsky said: “Humble charity is a terrible force; it is the greatest force in the world.” I know that Christ, nailed to the cross, is humble charity incarnate, and that the Resurrection is eternal.

But hunh. Wow. I'll be darned. 1991. You learn something new every day.

(Keep in mind, all you VERY RUDE SNICKERERS, that I passed the Massachusetts Bar AND the New Hampshire Bar AND the California Bar on the first try).

Lagniappe: In 1986, pianist Vladimir Horowitz returned to Russia for the first time in 60 years. From his historic April 20 concert at the Moscow Conservatory, Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) for piano, Op. 15 "Traumerei":


  1. Yes, Poland was liberated by Gerald Ford in a 1976 debate!

    I think it's refreshing that there are persons (many of them monks, perhaps?) who don't know, or care to know, who the Edwardses are. W H Auden once wondered aloud, Is it progress when children don't know the names of flowers but do know the names of politicians?

    I see the word lagniappe and want to pronounce it lag nigh a pee.

    And by the way, I have a Dorothy Day story for you -- it's one you may already know! But that can wait.

    Have a great Wednesday!

  2. Whenever I encounter someone brilliant making a gaffe like yours, I get a distinct frisson of pleasure.

    Of course, there was a time when I thought a frisson was a French dessert.

  3. Fr. Koble was certainly a heroic figure, with a very Polish catholicism .The question is whether or not he was an anti-Semite, the big Polish dirty secret[a debate raged in Poland in the early 1990's :is it possible to be anti-semitic without Jews?there are only a couple of thousand left in Jews in Poland.} My Mom and both maternal grandparents are from Poland[and aunts and uncles, etc.]It runs deep,I am the way, i have to ask how is one an ex-alcoholic? I mean no offense in asking, and If it sounds so, I apologize. I mean it in the spirit of inquiry ,I find your story fascinating, and the posts I have encountered are,well, interesting. Thanks

  4. I didn't say ex-alcoholic, I said ex-drunk--big difference. I'm 23 years sober and though I'll die an alcoholic, God willing, I won't die a drunk. As for St. Maximilian Kolbe, are you saying he didn't come from Poland? Because I wasn't discussing his or anyone else's possible anti-Semitism: I was simply noting his nationality.

  5. Yes, Thanks you for the clarification,no KOble was Polish, I guess I was stirring the pot needlessly.My apologies...I still call myself a drunk,btw ,though I am sober 28 years,by the Grace of God,I thought perhaps you were"cured".I am always interested when I find someone who claims to be cured>Though I have not found it, there might be anther way other than the one I go to, and i try to be open to others who don't like church basements, as it were. Thank you for the reply,it was quite kind of you.I look forward to reading you books

  6. Thanks, Patrick--not to worry, HELL no, I ain't "cured!"...congrats on 28 years and I hope you enjoy the books..

  7. Thanks alot...BTW are you familiar with Mariya Yudina,the great Russian Pianist ? She was someone I think you would love,great player[to my untrained ear] a holy fool or Blessed Lunatic or whichever you prefer.And, here is the really,truly weird part;Stalin adored her!The ways of God are mysterious...

  8. I did hear of Maria Yudina, just recently within the last couple of years, I think in a memoir by some Russian poet or musician whose name I now can't remember. He talked about how she was perpetually penniless and would give away her last shawl to a poor person and live in unheated apts. etc. Of course I was drawn to her right away but could not find much info on her....

  9. it is scant, she is mentioned in Shostakovitch's memoirs,and by Pasternak and Akahmatova.In Tony Palmer's film about Shostakovitch,testimony she is the character referred to as "that crazy Christian woman."and Shostakovitch relates a story of a midnight recording session for Stalin that is so surreal it has to be true...BTW her recording of a Mozart concerto was playing when Stalin went to meet his Maker...

  10. A great post! Funny, thought provoking and some great books for my wishlist. Have you seen the movie "The Island" I highly recommend it.

  11. I have seen The Island, and I, too, liked it--thanks, Stephen and any and/or all of those books are wonderful....


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