Last night I went to Columbia University for a book reading by one of the most popular Russian writers, Lyudmila Ulitskaya. The reading was organized by Institute of Modern Russia and Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
I attended the reading of the novel “Daniel Stein, Interpreter” because of love for discovery, and curiosity about how writer’s personal life finds its way into his/her works. Ulitskaya didn’t disappoint. During the talk she was open and frank, spoke with directness, even bluntness, and humor. She shared her thoughts and talked about experience researching and writing the above-mentioned novel. She also touched on the topic of modern politics in Russia and how the government discredits itself through trials on Hodorkovskij – the former richest man in Russia, whose power and influence once rivaled that of Putin. Now he is a political prisoner, and in the eyes of the West and many Russians, almost a saint.
After Ulitskaya started speaking, I couldn’t help but think about a generation gap between young Russians like myself, and those who lived in the country during the Soviet era. The Faculty center auditorium at Columbia was full of Russian people, many of whom looked like they were in their 40s. My friend and I appeared to be the youngest in the room. When Ulitskaya said: “Harriman Institute is not unlike US intelligence for a Soviet ear”, and “The fact that I am here today is a part of a positive change”, the audience nodded. It seemed like the only two Russians in attendance blissfully unaware about Harriman’s scare factor were my friend and I. We were children of “perestrojka”, and familiar with the regime that shaped minds of generations before us, only through books, old movies and stories told by our older relatives.
I spent first six years of my life in Soviet Union. I remember watching “Good Night, Kids” on channel One. Sometimes I even watched political news, although all that stood out to me was Gorbachev’s birth mark. There also was a channel Two, and I switched between them from time to time. One day on the news broadcast I saw tanks in the streets of Moscow. A few days later I heard that days of USSR were over. The news hardly shook my world, but I could sense change floating in the air. My mother’s behavior suggested that a big shift was going on, and it was a shift for the better. After what happened in August of 1991,conscious years of my life and lives of my peers were spent wearing jeans, watching American movies, chewing gum, and thinking that the US was a cool country and a home to “The Doors”, Disneyland, hamburgers and pizza. As a child, I learnt about the Cold War only from the words of my parents and school text books.
In the meantime, Lyudmila Ulitskaya kept talking about meeting the protagonist for ”Daniel Stein”, a real-life Jew, who converted into Catholicism after the World War II. She showed admiration towards the remarkable man, and credited him for helping to understand herself better. Ulitskaya showed respect and knowledge of religion. It was surprising for me to hear, since she is a biologist and a geneticist by trade, educated in a country’s top University in the 60s. Soviet ideology adamantly denied religion. Soviet government was responsible for demolishing the biggest church in Russia, which was also an architectural masterpiece and a memorial, and building a swimming pool on its ruins. This government practically drove Orthodox church underground, arresting priests and making people baptise their children in secrecy. My mother, a lawyer, told me she studied Scientific Atheism in college as a part of her core curriculum. I was never baptized and was never led to believe that God was a source of all creation. The closest me and many of my classmates ever came to understanding concepts of immortality of soul, hell and heaven, was while reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. Even Ulitskaya mentioned that Russians who attend church don’t know much about Christianity. In her words: “A couple of old ladies are arguing about origin of Christ. One would say he was a Russian, another – Ukranian”.
For herself, Ulitskaya reconciled ”a long-standing question-..-science or religion”. She said that “there is such a reflection of creation, such a divine beauty in science, that it’s not even a question.” Her full interview with Snob magazine in Russian language can be read here. I couldn’t help but compare her to another writer and a scientist whose talk I had recently attended. Nawal El Saadawi poked fun at religion as she spoke. The two women couldn’t be more alike yet more different from each other.
I may never understand organized religion, but I know spirituality. Just by a mere fact of being a human. Our ancestors invented Gods, and for all we know, a concept of higher being has existed for as along as humankind has. I am not in a position to deny it. In the matter of organized religion I tend to agree with El Saadawi who shows hypocrisy of Egyptian men worshipping Allah on Friday and then going home and beating up their wives. Many atrocities were and are still committed in the name of God. Many of those were forgiven by no other than church for hefty donations known as “indulgentia” in Europe. I view Church as a big machine, a corporation. Some people, like Ulitskaya’s protagonist, brach out and create their own brand of faith, which is admirable.
Overall, I enjoyed Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s book reading and signing. I am looking forward to spending some quality time with her novel “Daniel Stein, Interpretor.” In the biography Ulitskaya listed Tolstoj and Dostoevsky as her inspirations. If anything, the book I have right now rivals “Crime and punishment” in volume. I am pretty sure it is as engaging and educational as the famous Dostoevsky’s novel. In the foreword she writes: ” This world in which we have such difficulty living is filled with misunderstanding at every level”. Let’s hope the book “devoted to a man who tried all his life to break down the wall of misunderstanding” will help me break down own walls as well.