Lyudmila Ulitskaya is a very well known and highly regarded Russian writer who became involved in political activity at various times in her life because there really was nothing else to do. She was, nevertheless, an odd person for the Foreign Policy Centre to invite. When you add to that the fact that everything she said had to be interpreted, and the presence of Dr Rachel Polansky who seemed to have nothing of any significance to add to the discussion, it is clear that whoever planned the evening was having a rather difficult day though not as difficult as the evening the audience had trying to make sense of the various aspects.
I noted a few interesting points in Ulitskaya's talk (and none at all in Polonsky's contributions). Some of them were personal, some about Russia or, perhaps, her view on what is going on in that country.
First of all, let me explain that Ulitskaya started her working life as a biologist but was fired from her institute in 1979 because she had been helping to distribute Samizdat material, specifically, copies of banned books. As she said, she is not a political person but as so many in Russia, she has time and again found herself drawn into politics.
After some years of unemployment she found herself working in a theatre and her literary career began. It was, she explained, as if she had become a writer according to the Stanislavsky method of acting - she was placed into a writer's position so she became a writer. To this day, she added, she was not sure whether she really was a writer or merely acted a writer according to that famous method. How true that is about many of us who spend our lives scribbling. Are we really writers or merely actors in the Stanislavsky school? Or, indeed, nothing more than graphomaniacs, which is part of every writer's make-up as Ulitskaya cheerfully added.
Then there were a couple of points she made about Russia and its travails, which, she pointed out accurately enough, were not nearly as bad as the situation under Stalin was. Both her grandfathers had spent many years in labour camps for various reasons or none at all. There is no longer the all-pervasive sense of fear that was a constant in the Soviet period. However, it would appear that fear is beginning to surface again or, at least, bubble away somewhere just below the surface.
To the question as to why Russia was cursed by yet another appalling government (and it is truly appalling even if not as bad as the Soviet regime was) she produced the theory I first heard many years ago from a well-known historian of Russia and the Soviet Union: survival of the unfittest or negative selection. From the very start of the Soviet Union there was a concerted drive to rid the country either by exile, prison or death of all those who were in any way special, successful, full of ability and achievement. Whether it was officers of the White (and later the Red) army, intellectuals, successful peasants and businessmen, industrialists, trade unionists, politicians with ideas, even leading Bolsheviks, they were all destroyed or, at the very least, silenced in successive waves of oppression. Survival meant being grey, mediocre, unimaginative; if any signs of anything else appeared you were likely to find yourself behind bars or, in the later years, without a job and, thus, unable to survive. Towards the end of the Soviet period people once again started leaving the country. Four generations of negative selection take their toll on a society.
Ulitskaya's career has proved that in Russia, once again as in the days of the Tsars, it is the writers who fill the vacuum left by all others though when those writers are journalists they suffer for it. Russia, as this blog has noted several times, has had more journalists murdered than any other country that is not at war. Beyond that there are the innumerable journalists who have been beaten up, threatened, had their offices and homes thrashed and so on.
She has been drawn into politics again and again as, indeed, writers in Russia are and have been throughout history (if only by Stalin and his henchmen threatening and punishing them for being writers). Her most recent activity has been a correspondence with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which she has published; the letters in which the imprisoned former businessman explains various aspects of his life and career, she maintains, have helped to change public opinion towards him.
"I'm not afraid," Ulitskaya insists, speaking through a translator. "Compared to the Stalinist era, our government now is a pussycat with soft paws … Having said that, I believe that Khodorkovsky is in jail because the whole society was so scared that no one stood up for his defence. There were threats: the court was afraid, the witnesses, the judge, because no one had the courage to speak up and that saddens me. That loss of dignity frustrates me because our society had only just started overcoming its fear after so many years of oppressive rule. The Russian people have once again started to be gripped by fear."Afraid she may not be but optimistic she is not either. Her view of where Russia is going remains sad and depressed as that quotations shows. One could argue that no country is completely lost while there are people like Lyudmila Ulitskaya around but it is a slender hope.