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Apr 18, 2008


Mister blog, I am back. I took a trip to Russia where I attended a conference at my alma mater, the Novosibirsk Teachers' University. I then went to Roslavl in Western Russia to see my Mom, my brother, and his family.

Going home has to do with resurrection of old memories, bringing back old anxieties, but also reliving the good memories. It is fascinating to observe oneself; not just what cognitive memories still there, but also, how much your body remembers. I could not recall some names, but have an indelible map of our old building. Some episodes came back vividly, in full force, while others are completely gone. The narratives we construct about our own lives are so incomplete and fragmentary; the only way to remember your life is to go to the places where you have been in the past, and look for triggers of old memories.

But people in Russia are not really interested in my nostalgia. They have lived through some difficult and eventful years. Let's see, I missed two military coups, a depression twice as deep as the American Great Depression, and then unlikely economic recovery; they experienced chaotic democracy and returning authoritarianism, went from deepest national humiliation and dramatic population plunge to a new sense of national pride, and the relative stability of Putin's era. I had a very different experience of immigration. This chasm in experiences creates interesting disconnects. People who I have been friends for years suddenly do not find some of my jokes funny. Their language is now interspersed with words I find annoying and distasteful; they are probably equally irritated with my language that now has traces of the English syntax. For some reason, the English words that are flowing freely into Russian usage I find especially irritating. Less troublesome are the criminal slang expressions that have invaded mainstream. The Russians did not freeze in time when I left; they kept thinking and working, and acquired a whole new set of ideas and skills, new institutions and habits.

Coming home creates this very ambivalent and delicious feeling of familiarity mixed with estrangement. People and things are the same and yet not the same. The interplay of recognition and misrecognition, of being completely comfortable and accepted yet being alienated, separated by an invisible membrane. A classmate of mine, who was the social center of our little group, gave me a run-down on the entire cohort (we had about 25 people in it). One of our classmates is serving a prison term for contract killing, while others are successful businessmen. Most are still in education. None of the stories really surprised me, but none was also entirely predictable.

Coming home disturbs the familiar-unfamiliar continuum, and creates another class of feeling, which has to do not with re-experiencing the past, but with imagining yourself in an alternative life. What if we all stayed home?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:56 PM

    It is true that you can never go home is also true that home is where the heart is! When I think of Kansas City being home, where I grew up, I often think of the 600 mile trip and the special memories at the end of the road. It is very similar to my home and experiences here in Colorado. Yet to imagine the distance and diversity your experiences come from seems vast and literally on the other side of the world. When I think of Russia I do think of the Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and basically growing up in fear of nuclear war, with them as the bad guys. That was in the 80's and since then Russia has seemed like a distant cousin that you never really got along with, but admire. Their modern government now seems like it is something we created in a laboratory experiement that did not have all the right pieces to begin with. The people, however, do seem like the salt of the earth and that they are truely ones that would provide you a meal when you needed one. I guess what I am trying to say is that it is one of those mysterious places to me, and when you paint such a vivid portrait of the people, places, and institutions (especially education), it helps me understand the den where the Russian bears dwell.