Dispatch from Rome—
Our European correspondent and senior editor ponders the mess in the Ukraine, so easily predicted by those who understand the real springs of US foreign policy and its longstanding obsession with Russian encirclement and disabling as a global power, goals brilliantly explored in Stewart’s spy thrillers, especially Lily Pad Roll, volume two of his Europe Trilogy. Art sometimes imitates reality and sometimes it prefigures it.
By Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor, TGP
In these early March days in Europe, TV channels and newspaper pages are filled with the words of commentators, analysts and reports from foreign correspondents in Ukraine and the Crimea. One after another leaders of European Union-NATO are toeing the American—oh, whoops, I mean the NATO line that Russia is violating international agreements containing the self-determination of peoples so that Europe does not split into an uncontrollable potpourri of small squabbling nations.
Maps have become protagonists of the Ukrainian question. Maps showing the tangle of Russian oil pipelines to Europe. Each nation is measuring its oil supplies, determined to diversify their energy sources so as to be less dependent on Russia. Germany, with the North Stream lines directly from Russia is less concerned, and for that reason a reluctant partner in the NATO maneuvers to again isolate Russia. Italy instead, like others, buys most of its oil supplies from Russia.
In an atmosphere lightly labeled Cold War-ish, foreign correspondents in the Crimea show over and over Russian warships in Sevastopol and Simferopal and Russian soldiers patrolling Crimean streets. Soldiers in field uniforms but without insignias, each journalist hastens to explain.
And finally, reluctantly, maps are displayed showing the divisions of Ukraine: pro-Western Ukraine, Middle Ukraine including the capital, Kiev, Pro-Russian Ukraine, and Crimea and peripheral areas reaching southwest to Moldova and Transdnestr.
And today, March 2, I heard for the first time from an Italian military expert the analogy of Russia’s power play in the Crimea with the US occupation of Kosovo and its separation from Serbia and its recognition as an independent nation by most of Europe.
While Russian President Putin plays his power game skillfully, US Secretary of State Perry roams around making stupid statements about defense of America’s interests (thousands of miles away), and his assistant in East Europe sums up Europe’s reluctance to join in America’s geopolitical strategy to “break Russia up into little states” with an elegant “Fuck the European Union.”
Today, I spent some hours reading the comments of my some 40-50 Russian Facebook friends—university professors and students, journalists, chiefs of various public organizations, city employees, Kremlin employees, politicians from various parties, both pro-Putin or anti-Putin. Their voice was unanimous: ignore the USA; ignore West Europe; hate for the Nazis-Fascists-Banderovtsi (followers of the WW II traitor Stepan Bandera and a violent Ukrainian nationalist who led several regiments of West Ukrainians in Nazi SS uniforms against Soviet Russia, killing Poles and Russians and serving as the most brutal executioners of the Jewish population; scorn for petty nationalistic intrigues; great Russian nationalism tempered however with non-hostility toward their Ukrainian cousins of East Ukraine and Crimea. “Finally”, one wrote, “Russia shows its strength.”
Here I have included a series of excerpts from my novel, Lily Pad Roll, which shatters the myth that America is invading countries and building foreign bases in order to defend the homeland and secure oil supplies. The deeper motive for this slaughter of hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings and the resulting near-bankruptcy of the USA is brutal geopolitics: the desire of our ruling elite to weaken one our chief rivals, Russia, and secure unobstructed control of the world, which, to many Americans, and certainly the corporate-military-media elite, it’s always been a question of “manifest destiny.”
My protagonist is in Bulgaria in East Europe where he meets the new woman of his life, Antonia, who accompanies him on a trip through territories bordering Russia, lands hardly known to West Europeans.—GS
EXCERPTS FROM THE NOVEL LILY PAD ROLL by GAITHER STEWART
I want to get to Moldova, and especially to the Transnistrian Republic that so recalls the recent history of Kosovo … except from a Russian point of view. If America could militarize Kosovo and nearly bring Moldova into NATO, why should Russia not do the same there in its own former territories? And after Moldova, Odessa is waiting for me personally—if only to see those monumental Potemkin Stairs, the giant staircase entrance from the Sea into the heart of the city.
Each day I’m more astounded at this varied life only one thousand miles east of Berlin, totally different cultures and peoples. Mysterious territories. Impossible borders and belongings and names. And they are all Europeans—about whom we Westerners know nada. Or we discount them. Look down on them. Sometimes I think Cliff organized this trip for my personal education. Or maybe it just emerged as a natural consequence in my new life.
“Military lily pads. That’s what they call the American military bases across the world. Like the American bases in your country. That soldiers can hop from one to the other, like green frogs with black goggles … hopping from one lily pad to the other. NATO wants one in Moldova.”
“According to Bulgarian newspapers, Russians also want a base there, “(Antonia says). “If America can put a military base right in Russia’s face, why should Russia not build one too? Does America want another war? Iraq and Afghanistan are not enough? What is enough? But I never heard them called lily pads. I don’t know the Russian word for it. Still, I don’t understand why they spend all that money on their … their stinking military lily pads.”
“Well, we’ll see. Odessa is, well, another story. I want to see that staircase.”
Though Antonia hasn’t seen Eizenstein’s film and can’t understand my romantic curiosity about the staircase, she understands instinctively what is happening in the world. People here have more political awareness than in West Europe … I’m sure much more than in America. In Bulgaria, they overestimate American power because of the chain of lily pads and the soldiers in their cities but I’ve concluded that innocence and naiveté are not Bulgarian characteristics, and I’m just at the start of my adventure. I’ve already seen that social consciousness and the sense of reality are sharper in East Europe than in the West.
Another thing about Antonia—and I believe most East Europeans, since also Imogene from East Germany had the same quality—is her ability to listen … and react.
I’ve come to realize Antonia continues to remind me of my old girlfriend in Berlin, another girl from the then Communist eastern marches of Germany. I’m still puzzled as to what it is that makes them different.
The next afternoon we’re in the capital of independent Moldova. The ambivalent atmosphere is immediately palpable. After all the historic changes, new and old borders, new and old masters, after being part of Romania, then Russia, Moldovans don’t know where they belong.
“Life must seem like a dream to the Moldovans,” I mutter.
Antonia cocks her head and looks at me expectantly.
“As if they’re just waking from a dream. Maybe for some, from a nightmare. And they don’t know where they are … or what to do now. Over six hundred thousand of their four million live abroad.” I ramble. I doubt Antonia can follow me. This breakaway state from the former USSR is courted by the West and also ideologically undermined by Western moles. But it is again governed by the Communist Party following democratic elections monitored by international observers. One of those East European areas almost impossible for Westerners to disentangle or pinpoint as to where it really belongs or even of what nationality its people are. West Europeans still call it Moldavia. Moldova? What’s that? A country? A people? A language? If its name is unclear, its existence must seem unjustifiable. Still, Russia, Romania and NATO all want it.
“They know what they want,” Antonia says. Again instinctively she understands their situation. “It’s a poor country. Some of them might miss their past and still speak like Russians but most want what Westerners have.”
“Yes, but many nations claim or want Moldova. I’ve read surveys showing that many Moldovans want to be annexed by someone. Even by Romania, although they know Romania is a poor country too.”
“Maybe. But they have even less than Romanians. Some of them come to Bulgaria to work. And we’re not rich either.”
“Well, Russia would love to have it back … for strategic purposes. Keep the Americans out. West Europe wants it in the EU and in NATO in order to pressure Russia. The USA wants to put a lily pad base here … right smack in the belly of Russia.”
Moldova is the former Bessarabia, another name only vaguely familiar to us West Europeans today. It was once part of Romania. Until 1991 it was part of the USSR, as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Nearly half the Moldovan population is Russian or Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and nearly all are Russian Orthodox, where in its capital of Chisinau, in Russian called Kishinev, Russian is the street language. No wonder Moldova is on the frontline in the underground battle between Russia and the USA. It’s a mini Cold War. Many deals are yet to be cut here, perhaps another test for international law after the travesty of Kosovo. A test for capitalism too. It seems to me that Moldova should say ‘no’ to NATO and ‘no’ to absorption by Western-oriented Romania. It should limit its cooperation with the European Union too but I’ve seen the proof that the American eagle doesn’t back down one centimeter.
As we walk through the downtown I put my arm around Antonia’s shoulders. “I feel like I’m in Russia,” I say, though I’ve no idea as to what Russia feels like. She stiffens, probably fearful of being taken for a prostitute. Moldova is famous for its beautiful women, many of whom are prostitutes. But I haven’t seen any. I haven’t seen any beggars either. Occasionally you see young people holding hands, though women walking with men, even younger girls, usually lay a hand in the crook of the man’s arm. Something old-fashioned. Old East Europe…. A no-man’s land, of lands up for grabs.
The next morning the feeling of the proximity of Russia is accentuated in the Transnistrian Republic. After exiting from Chisinau we’re soon on a three-lane highway lined by modern gas stations on the 80-mile jaunt to breakaway Moldova’s own breakaway republic, called Transdnestr. Just as Moldova broke away from the USSR when it folded, Transdnestr has broken away from Moldova. The self-declared republic is located on the east bank of the great lazy Dniester River that runs through the double breakaway capital city of Tiraspol and flows into the Black Sea creating that cold counter current toward the Aegean Sea.
For the international community the breakaway republic doesn’t even exist. I had never even heard of it until my preparatory studies. I keep thinking of the Kosovo corollary. If the U.S. could fight a war against Serbia, bomb Belgrade for three months, overthrow its government, break up the nation, detach Kosovo, the very heart of Serbia, declare it a republic, recognize it and then build one of Europe’s biggest military bases there, why could Russia not do the same here? Antonia reasoned that way. And in this case, on its own former territory, the underbelly of Russia.
In Moldova the language issue is complex—40% per cent of the population is Russian or Ukrainian and many others speak Russian, even though the official language is Moldovan, actually Romanian, and is written in Latin script. I have Moldovan acquaintances in both Rome and Berlin who speak Russian; one in Rome did military service in the Russian army. But in the Transdnestr Republic language is a political statement. The chief language is Russian. Even the Moldovan language is written in Cyrillic as it was in Soviet times and is only one of the three official languages. Romanian is not even an official language and Latin script is banned.
Strolling along the uninviting streets of the capital city, arm in arm, almost carefree, I notice the office of the Russian-language newspaper, Dnestrovskaya Pravda. Antonia reads the plaque on the door: the republic’s oldest newspaper. On a hunch I lead her inside where I introduce myself as a foreign journalist and ask to see the editor-in-chief. The youngish-looking, middle-aged woman, Tatiana Rudenko, who receives us, is visibly relieved when she hears Antonia speak Russian. If there is hesitation about whether to speak in Russian in Chisinau, that is not the case in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol—here you speak Russian first of all.
Madame Rudenko relates the history of her city, starting with its foundation in 1792 along the Dniester River east of Chisinau. The population today is 150,000 though it once had over 200,000, including tens of thousands of Jews. Decimated by the Nazis, nearly all of the Jewish survivors emigrated. Today’s city is the result of a stormy zigzag voyage through two centuries of complex East European history: wars, pogroms, invasions and occupations, persecution, pressure from Russia and Nazi Germany, foreign meddling. In 1924, Moldova was transformed into the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and became part of the Soviet Ukraine with Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian as its official languages. Tiraspol was its capital until 1940 when according to secret provisions of the Russo-German Ribbentrop Pact, Russia took all of Bessarabia from Romania and integrated it into the Moldavian SSR. After the German-Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, the city was taken over by Romanian troops. Almost all of the remaining Jewish population perished. When the Red Army re-conquered the city in 1944, it again became part of the Moldavian SSR, lasting until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As she spoke, I saw before my eyes the unfolding of a story lying outside official history. Outside European time. Actually, much of East Europe is like that for many of us. I, as a European, see also that the upstart USA could never begin to grasp, much less resolve such old hates and loves, defeats and victories, borders and boundaries and the languages and histories of peoples who themselves are uncertain as to who they are or even in what language they think. Their sense of nationality is vague and volatile. Like the cultural city of Chernivitsi, today in Ukraine not far from here, on which I spent time in my map studies. Its many names in its different languages confuse the foreigner. Chernovtsy in Russian, Czerniowce in Polish, Tshernovits in Yiddish, Cernauti in Romanian, Czernowitz in German. Once a Jewish city of the old region once known as East Galicia, with seventy synagogues, today only one remains. Jews exterminated by the Nazis, Jews deported by Russians and later, Jews emigrated to Israel. How can one grasp this bewildering region? Is it part of Europe? If not, then where is it? And who are these peoples?
After a long silence, embarrassing for me because the history Rudenko recounts makes me feel presumptuous, I go back to my original query, Antonia translating as I speak. Why does Transdnestr want to host a Russian military base today if it would stir up tensions and sharpen the Cold War atmosphere, and in her opinion, would Transdnestr succeed in remaining independent?
Rudenko peers at me for a moment as though I’m crazy, then launches into another monologue, I’m certain reflecting the point of view of most people in this self-proclaimed, though unrecognized, Russian-speaking republic: “If America opens bases in former Soviet republics, Russia must counter each one of them. In Russian territory, but right along the line of the American military bases surrounding Russia. On the front, so to speak. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was weak. No longer. Today, Russia guarantees our independence. Though our republic broke away from the Soviet Union, we realize that the stronger the Russian military presence here, the better for us. Russia commands here today. We look toward Russia. Much easier to go to war—cold or hot—over the Transdnestr Republic than over Kosovo.
“Now there are only 1500 Russian troops here. Here to protect the weapons warehouses of the army of the former Soviet Union. It’s a symbolic force. For now. You hardly see them. They stick close to their bases. For us however it’s logical that Russia deploys any weapons necessary to neutralize U.S. missile systems. Needless to say that we too are sensitive to the U.S. missile bases spread all over East Europe, in the Caucasus and in Asia. Russia’s gas is a powerful weapon. But it’s not enough. It’s true that a Russian base here would aggravate matters between Moldova and Transdnestr, also between the USA and Russia. Still, what is Russia supposed to do? Just sit back and watch the USA take us over, and Russia too? And that, my German friend, is what Washington wants: to scare the shit out of Russia. Crush it. Dissolve it. Break it up into little countries like ours. We hope the Russian base here will help stop the American advance across the world. The greater the American presence in East Europe, in Moldova itself, the greater should be the Russian response. Strengthening Russia’s military presence in Transdnestr has been unnecessary this far since Moscow continues to dialogue with Moldova, which has not wanted to use military force against our breakaway republic.
“Remember that Russia can aim just as many nuclear missiles pointed at the West as the U.S. can mount from its bases in East Europe. Washington launched a strategic military thrust on Russia’s borders, installing its missile sites and Air Force bases in Poland, Rumania, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria and expanding its bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Those missile bases encircle Russia … only minutes away from Russia’s heartland. Washington-NATO has launched economic and military operations against Russia’s trading partners in North Africa and the Middle East. The NATO war that ousted Gaddafi in Libya has nullified multi-billion dollar Russian oil and gas investments and arms sales and substituted a NATO puppet for the former Russia-friendly regime. And now it aims at other commercial partners of Russia.
“Finally, Russia has reacted and threatens to aim its medium-range missiles at Berlin, Paris and London.”
Once back on the street, Antonia smiles her feline Germano-Slavic smile and asks if she did well. On the main street of Tiraspol, capital of the Russian-speaking East European maverick Republic of Transdnestr, I stop and kiss her passionately. This time she doesn’t complain about public displays of affection.
Arm in arm we stroll along the wide street leading toward the city center … though I’ve begun thinking there is no real center as such. Indistinct and uncertain architecture, some buildings in marble, some in concrete slabs, of no specific style. They don’t actually line the street but rather emphasize the many blank green spaces. Looks like a new city, a city yet to be completed, a Slavic Brasilia in evolution. Despite the wide avenues, not even a suggestion or pretension of grandeur. As if nothing were complete or would ever be complete. I feel the same nostalgia I used to feel walking the streets of former East Berlin. I try to picture the small town on which this new one was built. I imagine its former unsmiling peasants; dark, bearded and longhaired, pulling loaded carts down muddy roads near the river. They are men who atavistically fear devious and untrustworthy foreigners. They are men who love the joys of celebrations, men who know the difference between war and peace, between evil and good, and who worship the Orthodox resurrected God rather than the Catholic crucified one. These men however, I learned from my readings, also had a cruel streak in them, the human stain, that made them intolerant of other faiths that they blamed for their sufferings. Those anti-Semitic people must have vanished with the old town. In my imagination the new population consists of relocated individuals, not peoples, with little sense of who they are. They are stragglers, a new race, transplanted here beyond the River Dniester to cut out a new destiny for themselves. Nonetheless, the absence of the expected crowds today creates an eerie atmosphere, almost contagious.
“Hey, wait!” I cry, when I notice on the corner of the opposite street side a small crowd gathered around a newspaper kiosk. “Let’s see what that’s about.”
The kiosk is a dilapidated structure made of metal and wood. Behind the stacks of newspapers on the front counter stands a grinning fat guy, red-faced and with thin gray hair, talking affably with his customers, taking money and giving change, while automatically stroking a big black and white cat lying placidly in front of him. Evidently newspapers have just arrived from “abroad”. Komsomolskaya Pravda from Russia seems to be the most popular.
“Is everyone here Russian?” I ask in German, louder than intended.
Heads jerk toward me and my out-of-place language. Antonia explains that I’m a visiting foreign journalist. Answers come from all sides, all of which Antonia translates.
“I am,” says a guy with a tiny dog on a leash. “I come every day to get my newspaper.”
“I’m Russian too,” says an elderly lady.
“I’m Ukrainian but I read the Russian papers,” says another.
It turns out they are chiefly Russians. A few Ukrainians buy Ukrainian papers, and there is one old, Russian-speaking Moldovan, who says with pride that he’d served in the Red Army. He indicates on his lapel a pin that I assume testifies to his military service. Maybe a medal. A hero of the Red Army, maybe in the battle to rid former Moldavia of its Romanian Nazi occupiers….
On the spur of the moment I hire the taxi and ask the driver to show us the city. We turn into a square at the far side of which stands the bus and rail station. A huge Che Guevara poster stares out of the show window of what the driver says is a youth club. On the corner are big portraits of Russian leaders, Putin and Medvedev. At the entrance to the Heroes Cemetery we stop before a parked Soviet tank morphed into a monument. Later, the driver proudly points at a cognac factory. Soviet style architecture dominates this town full of Communist symbolism, a longing for the past, at least for something different from the present.
This is neither modern Russia nor the bigger Americanized countries of East Europe striving toward capitalism. The same sad torpor hangs over Tiraspol as over Chisinau; a hopeless weariness glued irremovably to its obscure existence.
At dinner in the hotel we share a bottle of the renowned Moldavian red wine, leaving a third of it. I stare across the table at Antonia who is looking out the plate glass window toward a suddenly busy traffic scene. Where is she in her world so different from mine? How does she react to this country? A country? Yes, but sad, unutterably worn and weary in this black hole of East Europe. Is she only registering how tame the traffic is compared to that of Bulgarian cities? Or something deeper? Does she see Chisinau and Tiraspol as I do, still the same backwater as they probably were in the former USSR? As a rule Antonia seems so urbane and cosmopolitan that I sometimes wonder if it’s a role she plays to impress me, a Westerner.
Yet after my short experience here, I think that, no, East Europeans—in elegant Prague and Budapest or in the backwaters of Chisinau and Tiraspol—have a natural quality of universality about them, a quality we in the West have lost. In comparison to their largeness of spirit, we are the provincials. Maybe I had to see Moldova to understand.
“I feel so provincial here,” I say.
“You, provincial?” Antonia says in her most ironic manner.
“Ja, ja, I mean in comparison to the … uh, to the largeness of spirit here in the East. Our Eurocentrism in the West is too powerful for our own good.”
Antonia has more than urbanity and universality; her natural elegance is without a trace of artificiality, an innate assumption of her femininity … and a fragrance of flowers adorns her. Antonia who, I’m certain, in her thoughts, in her inner world, lives the same real life as in her everyday world. In her world doubt seems suspended, if not rejected.
I realize that I’ve been fortunate in meeting another unusual woman. She resembles goal-conscious, steadfast, unwavering Imogene from the eastern marches of Germany, for one year my girl friend in Berlin. Also zany, uncontrollable, forever unattainable Katharina, who, though in my mind has remained remote, is perhaps waiting for me in Berlin tonight. Antonia has the same fiber, the same strength. The three of them somehow resemble each other, these three women I’ve loved, or perhaps still love. I must seek out their type, strong women who both appeal to my needs and often break my heart. In any case, all three have enviable qualities. Not simply their physical beauty and graceful attributes that I forget can quickly turn out to be evanescent, but each of them is illuminated by authenticity no less than beauty. Their oneness with the world seems to strip my existential uncertainties and my scribblings of significance. At this moment, watching Antonia watching the quiet, sad town, I know that as far as women are concerned, good fortune continues to follow me.
A light spring breeze from the Sea lifts Antonia’s pink chiffon foulard, lets it flutter for an instant and then fall gracefully in ripples over her shoulder. In the same moment, a frisson of excitement swells in me from momentary visions formed by remembered scenes from Eizenstein’s film. As we approach the staircase, I don’t permit myself to be tempted by partial views or even mere glimpses of the historic site. I close my eyes. Playing blind I hold Antonia’s arm tight and ask her to guide me. She thinks I’m crazy. I walk with my eyes tightly closed, without so much as turning my head. I want the full impact from film and history, all at once.
Then, I open my eyes. And there it is.
“I can hardly believe that I’m standing at the top of the Potemkin Stairs,” I whisper to Antonia. I’m in awe. Reverence. It was so close all the time and I didn’t realize it. Maybe the stops in Burgas and Varna, in Chisinau and Tiraspol, had also shortened the distances. Prepared me for the dramatic reality. Maybe that contortion of geography, the time and space distortion, the footprint mania, lies at the heart of the lily pad idea. Shorten the world. Link it. Shake it. Mix it. Make it one. But I think that those mad planners still do not realize the real distances, the separations and disjunctions, the diversity and the multiplicity of the peoples, the cultures and the customs involved. They confuse one with the other on their lily pad roll. Only to them it makes no difference. Other peoples do not count. These other peoples, the indistinct peoples like those of Tiraspol and Chisinau and Chernivitsi do not count. They have never counted.
Now Antonia grasps my arm, as if searching for equilibrium, and gazes toward the Sea. I smile and hope she will become infected too. A few ripples roll in, hardly more agitated than that first evening in Burgas at the seashore café. The sea breeze is hypnotic, blowing in from the Caucasus, it seems. It’s cooler here than I expected. The small boats scattered across the harbor bob only slightly. From this point, the unpredictable Sea seems pacific. But the history behind the scene before us is what makes the reality unbearably beautiful.
I translate aloud from a guidebook in English. Antonia is still curious but, no, she does not share my fascination. Though it’s practically in her own backyard, she has never been here before. In Odessa. On the steps. Nor has she seen the Eizenstein film, the story of the mutiny in 1905 of the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin against their officers who first fed them rotten meat, then shot many of them for protesting. Clearly The Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film, even though the protest that provoked the bloody reaction turned out to be a real mover of history. At the Brussels World Fair in 1958 it was named the greatest film of all time. For cinema historians the Eizenstein’s film is still a landmark of cinematography.
“The giant staircase appears like a formal entrance into Odessa from the Sea,” I read aloud. “The stairs are the symbol of the city. They were designed to create an optical illusion. From the top the steps are steep and practically invisible. A person looking down from the top sees only the landings from the Sea. But a person looking up from the bottom sees only steps. One hundred and ninety-two steps and ten stair flights. A secondary illusion creates a false perspective since the stairs are actually wider at the bottom, 21.7 meters, than the top where the first step is 12.5 meters wide. The whole staircase is only 27 meters high, but extends for a distance of 142 meters, interrupted by landings every 20 steps. Altogether the staircase seen from below gives the illusion of even much greater length. Looking up the stairs makes them seem longer than they are and looking down the stairs makes them seem much shorter.”
“The staircase is beautiful,” Antonia finally says, she too now almost in a reverie.
“Come on, let’s go down a couple of levels so we can look back up and see it from the perspective of the demonstrators.”
This is the site of the horror scene where Tsarist troops, shoulder to shoulder, march down the stairs from the top firing point-blank on the people of Odessa on the staircase. At the bottom, mounted Cossacks wait, slashing and hacking down the fleeing people with their long swords.
Reading the history and the film sequence, I slide into a momentary trance. The guide in one hand, Antonia’s hand in the other, I lift my head upwards, half close my eyes, and drift backwards in time and into Eizenstein’s atmosphere. The white tunics, the wide belts and black boots of the soldiers in a tight line across the width of the top of the staircase, their identical faces blank, expressionless reflections of blind power, their rifles upright in front of them, their officer with his sword held high, row after row of soldiers in identical formation behind them ready to fill up the spaces as the staircase gradually widens. They begin their methodical descent toward us, the officer’s shouted command on the level above Antonia and me, rifles now lowered, row after row of soldiers behind. I drag Antonia down to the next level, shouts of bewildered people around us, terror in the eyes of all, a mother urging her small son to hurry down toward the obscure Sea, the boy stalling, wanting to see the soldiers, their uniforms, their boots, their rifles. The officer with the sword now pointing downwards, a volley of fire, people falling around us, screams, people scrambling down the stairs, another volley of fire, an invalid without legs propels himself with his hands downwards faster than we can run. Now volley follows volley, the boy loosens his mother’s hand, she is swept downwards by the terrified mass of bodies, bodies now piling up on each level, along the steps, along the lateral parapet, no way out of the inferno, no emergency exit, only downwards, down, down toward the Cossacks and fatal Sea. The mother, now near us, tries to run to her child against the current of human bodies hurtling downwards in a death descent, ever downwards. Her son lies on the steps above, she reaches him, picks him up in her arms, cries for help to the advancing soldiers of the vacuous, identical faces and blind eyes of power. Another volley and down goes the mother with her son, upside down goes the invalid, a nearly blind woman wearing thick eye glasses looks upwards toward the source of the fire until a bullet smashes through her left eye, row after widening row of soldiers, officers with swords pointed at the people-targets. Now screams from the bottom of the stairs, “Cossacks, Cossacks” goes up the cry, as the savage cavalry slashes and rips and cuts swath after swath among the trapped people, helpless in the mortal grip of uniformed, armed power. We stand on the penultimate landing and observe the carnage of the people of Odessa dying under the rifles of the faceless soldiers and savage Cossack swords. Blood everywhere. And upwards, up toward the horizon, steps, steps, ever more steps, endless steps.
“Karl Heinz, Karl Heinz, stop it, stop it now, we’re at the bottom,” Antonia says in my ear.
I raise my eyes; I see only stairs, climbing and vanishing somewhere above us.
I shake myself back to the present. I’ve read a lot about this film. The theory behind the film author’s story is simple. For Eizenstein the sailors rising up against their officers and the Tsarist troops massacring the people were emblematic of the Marxist interpretation of the class conflict driving history. The thesis is the eternal clash of the bourgeoisie with the proletariat; the revolt on the Potemkin and the crushing of the demonstration on the stairs create the antithesis; the ultimate victory of the people which results in the synthesis of a classless society. Hence its classification as a propaganda film. But it was the director’s creative genius that produced “the film of all time”. Eizenstein harnessed the popular frenzy of that day in Odessa with his art, used here for revolutionary purposes, the realization of the dream of political writers. The inherent propaganda took nothing away from the genius of his art, which combined with history achieved what Eizenstein said, “sends the spectator into ecstasy.” With that film alone he raised the bar high for true art while stimulating class-consciousness and prompting the viewer to take up arms in resistance against injustice. Unfortunately, in the West, the same technique used to sell capitalist values was easier to achieve than the transmission of values engendering revolution.
Eizenstein loved long, slow shots and a linear narrative driven by individual protagonists, shots that force the viewer to dwell on one frame at a time, to see it, digest it, live it —the frame of a baby carriage careering down the steps amid the slaughter, or a soldier trampling the hand of a child, or a mother holding her dying son in her arms—to grasp the symbolism in pure action. In contrast, pure intellectual presentation, in film or literature, bludgeons us with a blunt message devoid of action.
The revolt of the people of Odessa and the massacre symbolize the thesis of the clash of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The mutiny on the Potemkin: the antithesis. The revolution and the overturn of the old society, and the attempt at a new society: the new synthesis. You can’t miss it. You can’t misinterpret it, underestimate it, devalue it. Eizenstein’s art co-exists with his message.
Standing at the bottom of the Potemkin Stairs, looking up the staircase and then out to the Sea, I mutter that Russia is not as distant and exotic as I once believed.
Antonia looks blank. “Distant? Russia? What do you mean? It’s right next to us. We drove here in the car. We’re in Russia … more or less. Even if Odessa is part of Ukraine today. But everybody’s still Russian here. A real Russian city. The home of famous Russian writers, Babel and Akhmatova and Pasternak. We’ve read them all at school in Burgas.”
She is right. Even I feel that this is Russia. A historical note I encountered in my reading came as a surprise because I had assumed that German troops occupied Odessa during World War II. Actually Fascist Romanian troops did most of the dirty work. In retaliation for a resistance attack on the occupation troops in 1941, Romanians massacred 25,000 civilians, most of whom were Jews. In 1942, only 703 Odessa Jews survived. By then, more than 280,000 people had been deported, including over 100,000 Jews. After 1970, most remaining Odessa Jews emigrated to Israel or the USA and founded Little Odessa at Brighton Beach on Long Island’s south shore. Then after the dissolution of the USSR, Odessa became part of Ukraine. Nonetheless, it remains a very Russian city.
“It’s the propaganda, Antonia. The propaganda you and I grew up with. The fact is the Cold War is still alive. People in the West grow up believing Russia is just another despotic Eastern power. They’re somewhere out there beyond the seas and the deserts waiting for the propitious moment to swoop down on us. Like the Tartars, in another famous film, who never arrive from the desert. The threats of terrorists-Communists-Tartars are the creation of power to retain control over us. Now I see Russia is much more part of the West than I realized. Part of us.”
“For Dostoevsky—that’s my major lit course this semester—Russia is a better West … a better Christendom too.”
We check into a four-star hotel near the top of the Staircase….
“Herr Viktor, uh Mister Viktor! Can you …” I say to the concierge later, reading from the brass nameplate on his desk.
“Ja, bitte schön, wie kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?” he answers, a wry smile at the corners of his mouth. “Just call me Viktor,” he adds, still in German.
My hesitant “Herr” establishes my German nationality, at times still embarrassing even to my generation. Besides, as I learned in my hotel living with Katharina, concierges everywhere are especially perceptive and insightful. Magically, they are able to read into your innermost self.
“I wanted to ask what we should see here in Odessa? What are the chief points of interest for tourists?
“Are you a tourist?” he asks looking me straight in the eyes. “You and your lady friend make a striking couple. But you don’t behave as tourists … nor like our nouveaux riches, especially not like the Ukrainians.”
“But aren’t you Ukrainian too?”
“Well, by nationality, yes,” Viktor says, lowering his voice. “But I’m Russian, through and through. If we Russians here in Odessa had a choice, we would vote to reunite with Russia. Today’s Ukraine is far from us.”
“I’m part German, part Italian where I grew up. Today I’m a journalist.”
“Well, after you see the Potemkin Steps …”
“That was the first place we went. I’ve long dreamed of it. Saw the Eizenstein film many times.”
“Ah ha,” Viktor murmurs. Then: “Well, among the most interesting Sehenswürdigkeiten—you know Herr, uh, Leonhard, I love that word in German. We also have a long Russian word for ‘things to see’: dostoprimechatelnosti.”
“Mein Gott,” I say.
“That’s what we Russians say when we see that German word. That’s why I like to pronounce it.”
“What about the Konstantinovich there on your name plate? That’s pretty long.”
“My patronymic. My father’s name was Konstantin. Older Russian guests address me as Viktor Konstantinovich. But some of the younger nouveau riche people just say Vik. Changing times, no?”
“Your father would have been too young for the Potemkin mutiny?”
“Yes. My grandfather was also too young to be there that day but some family friends died in the massacre. Not on the steps however. That scene was fictional, imagined by Eizenstein to demonize the Tsarist regime. It all really happened on nearby streets … where troops fired on the people demonstrating in support of the sailors’ mutiny.”
“Incredible. Anyway for me it still happened on the staircase. The history of that day must be alive here.”
“It’s alive for real Odessites. Uh, well, what else should you see? You might visit the catacombs, the great tunnels spread under the city. Once used by bandits and smugglers. During World War II, Partizans hid there. For months and months of cold, showing that Russians can bear things that would kill a Westerner … like they did in Stalingrad and Leningrad. But for real sights you might see the Opera and Ballet Theater, famous for its acoustics, and some of the great city mansions like the Tolstoy Palace … Lev Tolstoy loved the city and was an honorary citizen. And of course the Passage, something like the Galleria in Milano. Herr Leonhard, Odessa is a beloved city of Russia, always was. In Imperial Russia it was the nation’s fourth city, after St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. Also it was once the home of many Russian Jews. Few of them are left here today.”
I shake hands with Viktor Konstantinovich.
Later, when we come out of the Tolstoy mansion and turn down a main avenue, I see it—I’m beginning to learn the Cyrillic script—the Russky Sotzialny Klub. Russian? I wonder. But no matter. In we go. It is late morning. Only a few young people milling around a stage. Theater? Cabaret? What does a Russian club do in Ukrainian Odessa? Seems like a West European kind of thing. But you never know. Dissent ferments anyplace. Nobody pays us any attention. Antonia asks around. Is there someone who would speak with a Western journalist?
Robert meets us in an alcove behind the stage, pronouncing his name “Row-Bear”. About Antonia’s age, he’s more interested in her than in me, the foreign journalist. Anyway when he comes round to being interviewed and sees that I want to record the interview, his interest is aroused and he launches into a rambling discourse, showily displaying his political aspirations for which the social club must be his jumping off point.
That evening I write up a condensed version of the interview-monologue.
Like Viktor Konstantinovich, Robert says he is Ukrainian only by nationality but Russian by descent, predilection and choice. “If we could vote on our nation,” he repeated, “I would vote for Russia like most Odessites. Russia is our motherland. Not Ukraine with all its Fascists over in the western regions. We Odessites were never Ukrainians. Why should we be now?
“Western Europeans do not know that Ukraine is split between the eastern and southern parts on the one hand and its western regions on the other. The West and the East here will never be compatible. Still, Ukraine has fifty million people—the France of East Europe. Since the collapse of the USSR, Europe has pushed its eastern borders up to the frontiers of Russia. Weak post-Soviet Russia was unable to stop that advance. Not only the ex-Soviet satellite countries in East Europe from Bulgaria to Poland changed sides, but also parts of the USSR itself—Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine. The major problem here is Ukraine’s two souls. The eastern soul holds Ukrainians close to their big brothers, the Great Russians; their western soul led rabid nationalists to collaborate with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine’s western soul aspires to become part of Europe; its eastern soul prefers a privileged relationship with Russia. In 2004, the American- sponsored Orange Revolution swept pro-Westerners into power in Ukraine. A year later, Russia’s nominee won out in the country’s first free parliamentary elections and became Prime Minister. The elections were a fatal flop for the western-looking part of Ukraine and a confirmation of the traditional division of the country.
“Three currents compete in contemporary Ukraine: the linguistic, historical, pro-Russian soul; the nostalgic, big nation, central planning, pro-Soviet soul; and a free market pro-western soul. Still, for many Russians and Ukrainians, the two peoples are nearly one and Ukrainians are referred to as Little Russians.
“Russia is alarmed about the rapid move westward of big and powerful Ukraine. In the 1990s, Ukraine contributed troops to so-called peacekeeping in Kosovo in the Balkans. It sent troops to Iraq. The Ukrainian government’s desire for membership in United Europe, NATO and WTO, was the last straw for Moscow.
“Western Ukraine has close historical ties with Europe, particularly with Poland. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been strongest in the westernmost parts of the country. But it’s a different story in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine was the center of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, the cradle of Russia. Something like Kosovo for Serbia. During the tenth and eleventh centuries Kievan Rus was the largest state in Europe. Kievan Rus also laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism. A Ukrainian state was established during the seventeenth century. Then, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, the Russian Empire absorbed Ukrainian ethnographic territory.”
Robert continually reminded me that a big minority of the population of Ukraine are ethnic Russians or speak Russian as their first language, particularly in the industrialized east and south of the country, where the Orthodox religion is predominant. Odessa and the Crimea were long part of Russia.
“Democracy here is as elusive as is the formation of a unified nation. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the ancient divisions in Ukraine between East and West have continued to stall efforts for the formation of a unified nation. The western-backed coalition government dissolved because the east and south of the nation prefer Russia and Ukraine’s past. Russia is still Ukraine’s largest trading partner. And Ukraine is the link on the pipeline for Russian gas exports to Europe.
“Russia retreated from West Europe for fifty years. Now with its gas as its weapon its retreat has ended. Since much of Europe’s economic future depends on Russia’s gas, European efforts at democratizing Russia have stopped. Only friendly relations count. Europe no longer pushes hard for Ukrainian links to the West. Not so America, which wants Ukraine in NATO and wants military bases here. Russia’s gas scares Uncle Sam. America thinks it’s unfair that Russia has all those resources in Siberia and wants to get its hands on them.
“Today, the tide in Ukraine has turned eastwards. The impulse toward the West of the last fifteen years has stopped. But Ukraine needs good relations with both East and West. Were Russia to raise gas prices or cut supplies, the scene would change. Keep this in mind: in a contest over Ukraine between Russia on the one hand and Europe-USA on the other, Moscow in a fair battle will always win.
“Arrogant American foreign policy is also a reason for the turnabout. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would be like Canada taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over Texas. Then also the European Union needs association with Ukraine. The European Parliament urges neighboring states to respect the democratic choice of the Ukrainian people and avoid any type of economic or other pressures with the goal of changing the political and economic status of Ukraine. At the same time the European Parliament has called upon future governments in Kiev to consolidate Ukrainian commitment toward general European values, to advance democracy, human rights, civic society and the rule of law, to continue market reforms and to overcome political divisions in Ukraine.
“Of course, this all rings friendly and cooperative—to western-oriented Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking Ukrainians it sounds threatening, with an underlying note of economic blackmail.
“That’s why Russia supports pro-Russian government leaders in Ukraine. Otherwise, the threat is revolt in the eastern and southern parts of the Ukraine like here in Odessa. But then, there is Russia’s gas on the one hand which Ukraine needs, and again, America’s military bases on the other, which Ukraine does not need.
“No doubt about it. Russia is again a global actor. Alongside India and China and Brazil, Russia has assumed a protagonist role. Much of the empire is gone but Russia’s aspirations remain. Today Russia is showing its muscles. Moscow has tried to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue and has strengthened its ties with Tehran. It is mediating with Hamas in Palestine. Still, though a weak Russia is a danger for the world balance of power, a strong Russia worries Washington. But a strong Russia to counter uncontrollable America appeals to much of the world. For many people in the world, Cold War at low risk is better than hot war in Iraq …or nuclear threats launched at Iran.
“America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is divided, poor, its economy in shambles, its empire dismantled. But Washington cannot control China or India, nor, we Odessites believe, can it contain Russia even though it aims at dividing it and crushing its influence.”
After dinner in the hotel we listen again to the tape of the wordy monologue. It still makes a powerful impression. Yet, flashbacks of the Potemkin staircase predominate my mind: Eizenstein’s tour de force demonstration of dialectical materialism at work … without the use of words. Today he might show America’s lily pads as the thesis, the growing revolt of people everywhere to their presence and the resulting suffering as the antithesis, and a world uprising against capitalist exploitation as the synthesis.
My mental rambling calls to mind my university seminars on political theory and the famous quote from Marx: It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but their social being that determines their consciousness. The Potemkin film is a reminder that theory becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Strange that I’d never carried such thoughts outside the classroom until now.
“I want more from life (than that),” Antonia begins, kicking off her shoes and removing the blue jacket I love. The light blue is a perfect frame for her Germanic blond hair. In her most down-to-earth manner she speaks of herself, the first time she has done that, always reluctant to speak of her own inner life, her desires, her dream. “I’ve learned languages, am in my last year at the university and have always been at the top of my class. That has made me more daring, I suppose. Leonid thinks so. I want to live abroad, continue my studies in West Europe, probably Germany. Leonid doesn’t want to understand my dreams. I’ve thought of doing graduate work in art history, which intrigues me. Or in comparative literature. Or both. I might aim at an academic career. Above all I want to learn how to live life right … the only life I have. Learn what is good in life. And what is evil. We debate that constantly in Bulgaria. Most people thought the end of Communism would change everything. Now people see the folly of that hope. We students also read Blagovesta’s blogs. Is she right and our capitalist government wrong? I want answers. What’s the right way to live? It’s my life, Karl Heinz! I want to grow,” she murmurs, unbuttoning her white silk blouse, liberating her perfect twenty-two year old breasts. She has never been so bold with her body. In her way, not Katharina’s, she almost acts with abandon. Yet, in her, it seems natural, not an act of seduction. Not necessarily. “I want to do more with it. You’re a journalist, a writer; you can be satisfied with your progress. But I’m nowhere. You might think I’m loose,” she says, standing up and letting her skirt drop to the floor, an enigmatic smile on her lips and in her eyes. “Maybe you think I’m immoral, to have come away with you. But just at the start. Actually I only thought of showing you Varna where I once lived. Now things have changed. I’ve seen how sensitive you are. I like that. Not many people in Bulgaria have the possibility or means for doing just as they like. And sensitivity dies easily … in moments of need and want. In a way, most of us in Bulgaria are more prisoners today than under [the supposedly terrible] Communism.”