Friday, May 11, 2012

Psychology and Reliability

 I’ve been trying to express in words how Russian novels elicit a certain feeling and impression. I can’t help but be extremely aware of how the authors and characters share a particular history and culture. Russian literature classes constantly ask what a Russian novel is, or what makes a Russian novel. I don’t think anyone has ever been able to fully answer the question in a satisfying manner. However, I feel as if I can point out a piece of the puzzle. Russian novels revolve around strong characters in general, and delve into the psychology of these characters in a way that attempts to reflect a larger scene or an aspect of Russian culture at the time, such as ideas of family, relationships, and the effects of poverty or other harsh situations on individuals, to name a few.

This psychological delving is so interesting and I believe relates to our questions about reliable narrators. We do not come across reliable narrators because humans cannot be reliable in their narration. Memory is constantly being restructured and rewritten. Furthermore, I was surprised to see so many representations of mental illness throughout our book lists. Most recently, Anna’s mother in The Time: Night but also, arguably, many of our main characters and narrators. These issues of mental illness seem to be much more candidly addressed in the books we’ve read in this course compared to non-Russian fiction I’ve read. How might have issues of poverty, imprisonment, guilt, and personal angst have affected emotional and psychological states of the characters and how does that result in a certain type of narration?

Sensing and Believing

As someone who did not have the pleasure of being around for the moon landings first-hand I'm admittedly relying on hearsay, but it seems to me as though the basic importance of the landings lied in the experience itself. Everyone was reading the papers, watching the news, following the story together as the journey went along. Even today I'm betting that most of us can conjure up an image of the Earth from the moon, or of the astronauts walking across its surface. Boots in the dust are another example, and there I feel as though you can even get the visceral feeling of planting feet where no one thought they could ever be. This is how we all "experience" the moon, and I feel as though it is in fact just about the only value we get from all of the trouble.

What struck me most about Omon's own trip, in as much as he had one, was the distance he was forced to keep from the actual moon experience. There was no sound stage even, on which they were going to trick him into believing that he was walking along the surface. The only time he steps off the bicycle his eyes are sealed up, for obvious practical reasons as far as the higher-ups are concerned. No touching, no looking, basically. For me, the image is absolutely tragic. I feel as though Omon would have had a better fate were he to be sent to the actual moon on a death mission, as he had been told. After all, it would have been possible to achieve something, and to have a moment or two of that sensation, of being away from and above the Earth and its problems, which he wanted so badly.

I bring this up because I think it has interesting implications for the novel as a whole. In particular, Colonel Urchagin explains to Omon that the idea behind the project is that the Soviets can take the lead in the space race if just one pure soul believes in the mission (149-150). Could Omon have been that pure soul without a true, tactile encounter with the moon? Even if the gun had not jammed, and the mission had gone off without a hitch, would there have been a gain even in the suspect logic of the higher-ups? I'm not certain that there would have been.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Omon Ra and Freedom

Omon Ra is about aspiration and ambition. Throughout the novel, Pelevin links Omon’s aspiration of becoming a cosmonaut with the Soviet Union’s ambition to transition from an oppressive republic to a more free and democratic one.
            On pages 8 and 9, Omon realizes that “only weightlessness could give man genuine freedom . . . in my heart, of course, I loathed a state whose silent menace obliged every individual who came together to imitate zealously the vilest and bawdiest individual among them . . . I realized that peace and freedom were unattainable on earth.”
            This passage establishes the linkage between freedom within the state and Omon’s desire to fly. With this link established, Pelevin uses it to comment on the state’s ambition for freedom. At every turn, Omon’s ambition for the freedom of flight is met with opposition that suggests the freedom typically associated with flight is a myth and freedom can’t be achieved.
At his flight camp, Omon encounters a poster depicting a child just like himself who aspires to flight. Upon reaching his goal of space travel in the final panel of the poster, Omon describes his eyes as “filled with some inexpressible anguish.” Immediately following this passage, we get a description of a small toy rocket ship which was built around it’s pilot with no exits as if it were a prison.
These two scenes, combined with Omon’s own story in which his ambition for space travel only brings him to an anonymous, quiet death inside a spaceship described as a tin saucepan, suggest quite strongly that even in the greatest fantasies of freedom and glory there is nothing to be found but anonymity and imprisonment.
Given that this novel was written just after Glasnost, we should question how much Pelevin’s perspective on Omon’s ambitions for glory and freedom applies to the Soviet Union’s ambition for the same things. It is, at the very least, possible that Pelevin views Perestroika and Glasnost somewhat ambivalently and recognizes that the freedom and openness they are expected to bring may very well be a myth.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Time: Night - Chaos and Loneliness

When reading The Time: Night, both themes of loneliness and chaos stood out to me and I feel that these characteristics are related. The novel goes in waves. When Anna’s family is together there is an overwhelming sense of chaos. Everybody is fighting, the apartment is too crowded, and there are not enough resources for each individual. This chaos leads Anna’s children to leave her nest. Even when Anna is alone her attention, at least in the narrative, still focuses on her family. Although Anna insults her children and openly shows her contempt for them, she still holds that familial bond and cares for them, letting them come back home when needed. The story continues in this pattern, and thus I feel that even though at the end of the novel Anna is alone, I did not find this hopeless. I feel that given what was presented in the narrative that the reader can somewhat expect Anna to be eventually reunited with her children and grandchildren.

I also feel that Andrei is in this continuous loop of loneliness and chaos. His past criminal behavior leads him to the chaos of the soviet system. The chaos among his personal life when he returns from jail leads him to drink – loneliness.  Everyone has his or her way of coping with the Soviet System. Andrei drinks, Anna insults and speaks her mind.

Although this book is somewhat depressing and chaotic itself (the non chronological narrative adds to this) I feel there still is some crude humor that in some sense acts as relief.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Time: Night and STDs

Throughout the novel, STDs are mentioned. I believe this is the first time that STDs are mentioned so strongly in any novel that we have read so far. Like on page 4, a woman from the Film Institute is said to have gonorrhea. Petrushevskaya  writes, “…she’d got a summons on the post from the VD clinic, saying she’d missed one of her regular injections for gonorrhea…” (Petrushevskaya 4). I was curious why all of a sudden we see the emergence of STDs. Anna also shares a fear that her daughter will contract an STD.

I found a paper by Julie Stachowiak entitled Russia and the Former Soviet Union in which she discusses the outbreak of STDs soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, around the same time period as this novel.1 She claims that many diseases, not only STDs, such as “diphtheria, cholera, and hepatitis B” reached epidemic proportions because “the collapse brought further damage to an already inadequate public health system”. Regarding STDs, there was an increase of STDs between 200 and 500 percent in syphilis and chlamydia. This increase was also paired with an increase in prostitution due to the decrease in local currency and foreign business people began arriving.

Interestingly, the Soviet Union believed that they would never have to worry about HIV infections because “homosexual activity and injecting drug use were illegal under Soviet law”. In 1987, discovery of 300 cases of HIV among children infected in medical settings in the cities of Elista, Volograd, Krasnodar, and Rostov-na-Donu brought upon the formation of the Soviet Union’s first national program for AIDs prevention and control. Of the 142 million exams taken from 1991-1998, only 4% of the tests were reported as being voluntary or consensual. The Soviet Union took extreme measures for those individuals that tested positive. Stachowiak writes, “If an individual has a positive test result, post-test counseling is in the form of a document that he or she is required to sign stating: "You are the carrier of a deadly disease and are criminally liable for any contact that would pass that disease to another person."

After reading this article, I better understand why STDs had such an influence on these later 20th century novels.

1Stachowiak, Julie. Russia and the Former Soviet Union.

Motherhood in The Time: Night

Sima and Anna, Anna and Alyona, Alyona and Tima: three generations, but nothing has changed. Mother and child relationships in this novel are strained at best. Readers do not even know of Sima's situation until midway through the novel. This shows a lack of bond between Sima and Anna. Additionally, I felt that Anna mostly did not want to have to deal with her mother; her mother was more of a hassle than a human. Anna constantly criticizes Alyona for her promiscuity and treatment of her children. Alyona has children with multiple men and leaves them for Anna to take care of. However, Anna is also pushed around by the men in her life (notably by Andrei) and does not treat Alyona with any respect. Anna wrote in Alyona's diary, an ultimate show of disrespect and criticism. Alyona leaves Tima with Anna. Anna shows that she is both neglectful and uncaring of her small child. Tima loves his mother, though. He does not yet understand why she is being so cruel to him. All of the relationships are complicated and difficult. They are weak due to the mother's attitudes and even selfishness. Most of the novel sorts through the ugly relationships and loneliness sometimes associated with motherhood.

However, at the end of the novel, things do begin to change. Anna stays with her mother near the end of her life and takes care of her. She seems to really love her and tries to help her. This is quite a difference from the bickering going on earlier in the novel. Alyona's relationship with Tima also changes. At the end of the novel, Anna finds the beds empty, a sign that Alyona has left with her children. Alyona finally seems to be taking some responsibility for her children and becomes independent by leaving with them. Although she does not confront her mother or speak out for what she believes, she does show her newfound confidence through her ability to leave a bad situation. The only relationship now strained is between Anna and Alyona. Their similarities make it difficult for them to compromise, but with age, the relationship could improve, as it did with Sima and Anna. There is hope for motherhood yet.

What do you believe Petrushevskaya's view of motherhood is? Why do you think that she focused on mother relationships instead of father relationships? Do you believe that anything really changed in the relationships of the novel as I stated above? 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Economics of Despair: Poverty, Abortion and Hopelessness

Petrushevskaya addresses many important issues in her dark novel. One that strikes me most is the linkage between poverty, disintegration of family as an institution in Soviet/Russian society, and the conflicting emotions of independent but poor women on their most basic natural need to bear and have children. The novel was written/published in 1992, when low birth rates and high abortion rates in the disintegrated USSR were a norm. Russia’s total fertility rate (according to the CIA) in 1990 was estimated to be 2.0 children per Russian woman ( The minimum rate for a population to replace itself is 2.0-2.5 births per woman (according to various estimates). According to in 1990, 1.6 million women in Russia had abortions while 1.5 million gave birth, meaning that the number of abortions exceeded the number of births. The situation became even worse in late 1990s and early 2000s.
Economy in turmoil led many people to become jobless, and many marriages divorced. The new category of single mothers is described by Petrushevskaya. The main character, Anna Andrianova, is jobless and confused mother of two children, Alyona and Andrei, and grandmother of three kids. Alyona has hopelessly poor judgment of men: different men fathered her three kids and walked away. Anna insists on Alyone having abortions instead of having kids she cannot support: ‘Heavens above, girl, everyone has abortions even when they’re far gone…for money,’ I (Anna) tell her. ‘Right up to God knows when. For money!’ ‘What money? Whose money?’ she (Alyona) mutters. (pp. 132-133) Ethical issue presented here is complex and with no simple solution. The absence of emotionally and financially responsible men in lives of these women, given their own dire financial situtation, makes their situation impossible. Motherly experience of Anna provides a voice of rationality, while emotional, motherly instincts of young Alyona (along with the lack of money) lead her to having kids she cannot possibly raise on her own.
The issue of abortion is explosive one in the US. How do you feel about Anna’s and Alyona’s conflicting views on abortion?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Setting in "My Perestroika"

One aspect of My Perestroika I found most interesting was the filmmaker’s emphasis on setting and place.  There was minimal discussion on the apartment’s and living spaces that various people occupied but they were presented frankly and starkly throughout.  In particular, the filmmaker’s contrasted the two teacher’s crummy apartment that could be the inside of any High Street house with their businessman classmates lounging on his posh leather sofa in his spacious and modern apartment. Simple shots like these excellently illustrated how the fall of communism had changed the material reality of different groups in varying ways.  Clearly those who took advantage of the new capitalist system benefitted enormously while many others have seen much of this success pass them by.  Of course they still benefit from all sorts of new freedoms, but their own personal amenities and comforts are minimally improved. 

The simple and straightforward way the filmmaker went about this made it much more effective than another approach would have been.  They used many shots that showed various people moving about their everyday life in their apartments (as opposed to sitting at a table and being interviewed) and this helped draw attention to and demonstrate the realities of their lives in a way an interview never could.  Leaving it up to the viewer to make their own observations and draw their own conclusions made for a much more effective documentary. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The importance of Age in "My Perestroika"

One of the most fascinating aspects of My Perestroika for me has to do with the presentation of age. The adults that are interviewed in the film were in about their early teens when the Soviet Union fell. As some of them have discussed, it was strange because they were old enough to begin looking critically and with awareness at the reality of the world around them, but at the same time, they were just coming out of childhood in which they were told so many 'truths' and generally fared well. This must have been a particularly confusing time as they saw one world fade away and another replace it.

The interesting thing for me is that while I think many people in lots of cultures begin to question the reality they have been taught as they enter teenage years, in this case not only were they questioning it, the reality indeed was shifting for everyone, not just in their awareness as they matured. 

Another thing that struck me with respect to age is when the teacher mom said that it is really complicated to teach soviet history to children. I started thinking about how difficult it would be to teach children history of any kind.. it is no wonder that the versions of history we learn as a child are so simplistic and carefully censored... how can a child be expected to understand the nuances of historically contextual situations? At the same time however, maybe this is also just testament to the fact that we as humans tend to complicate things that would be better if we kept them simple, and thought of things more as children do. 

A last reflection on age in the film is that I think it makes you realize that no matter what is going on in the world in the grand scheme of things, people still need to live day to day. Children are still children with the worries of children, just as people continue to love and live and laugh and die. 

My question for people basically is what did you think of the depiction and reflection on age in the movie? How does it help you understand or complicate the demise of the Soviet Union?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My perestroika - different countries, same change

       The movie we started watching today in class might have a very different meaning for me, a child born in barely democratic Romania, just 2 years after the fall of the communist regime, than it has for most people in our class. Watching the images and listening to the stories of the people in the movie seems like I am listening to citizen of Romania, who are, for some reason, speaking in Russian. The manifestations and the pioneers, the songs and poems about peace, they could maybe be described as universal among the communist states. ( The video in this post is from the last celebration of communist rule in Romania in 1989, its anniversary was on the 23rd of August and the Romanian revolution started 4 months later,in December 1989).
        I think the thing that impressed me the most were the pioneers. The way they talk is hauntingly similar to the way the Romanian kids praised the glorified leader a little bit over 20 years ago. Even their voices are similar. And while some people found it funny, for me it was slightly terrifying, understanding how powerful the cult of personality was in all the communist countries. This unity in how kids were forced to show their approval of communism and their strong belief in its values really impressed me in a way that I never thought it would.
        The innocent children we saw in the movie are not just random kids, who show up in the video because they happened to be around when public television was taking interviews. They were carefully selected, based on their parents' involvement in communist activities, if these parents were effective and loyal members of society,preserving the values of communism and fostering them in their kids, so that the   offspring would become responsible members of the communist society.
        I haven't lived during the communist rule in my country, but I have been exposed to aspects of it and the way the Russian people talk about it is familiar to me. The way the interiors of their houses look like, even the social commentaries on class and income feel as if taken from a Romanian documentary about the democratization of my country. I relate to it in a very strong way. However, I can imagine that the American perspective on all of these issues is different. How does it make you feel when you see how fascinating wearing a T-shirt with USA written on it is for some people? Can you understand how cool the UCLA logo must have been ( I bet most people in Russia don't know what UCLA is even today...)? How does their perspective on the west make you feel?
         All in all, I think the things I am most curious about are: how do you feel about communism and about this movie? Can you put yourself in this situation? Do you resonate with the characters? Can you imagine how life was like either during the communist rule or at the time when the movie was made?
Also: how do you feel about their way of living? Is it in any way similar to anything you/ your parents/ your grandparents might have experienced?