Category: Coronavirus

It’s Been Emotional, an article by Elizabeth Rimmer

23/07/2020

 

It’s Been Emotional

We in Scotland have just taken the most significant step out of lockdown. We can get our haircut -the demand has been so great that mine won’t be cut until for another month, by which time it will take some serious archaeology to discover what the original cut was – visit each other and go to pubs and restaurants again. Museums and libraries can open, with restrictions, and faith communities can celebrate communal worship, though the restricted numbers allowed will make it difficult for even my small parish to function normally. We’re anxious, especially as we recorded a spike in local infections – ironically enough at a call centre doing contact tracing – but we do feel we’re at the end of a very bleak time.

It got emotional. We didn’t sleep so well. We stockpiled toilet rolls, and pasta. Eggs and baking ingredients disappeared from supermarkets – who knew Britain had so many bread makers? Pickled onion Monster Munch and Pepsi Max became contraband and people had to learn to make their own curries, tacos and kebabs to replace the takeaways that couldn’t open for weeks. Some people were working too hard, and some people didn’t have any work at all. A lot of people worried about the behaviour of others. A lot of people worried about the effects on the economy. A lot of people escaped into gardening and birdwatching, online yoga and Zoom coffees and family quizzes. Some writers wrote prolifically, others couldn’t write at all. Almost everyone submitted their work as if possessed. Plague poems and pandemic anthologies abounded, like these:

https://pestilencepoems.blogspot.com/

https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/

and publishers had to close submissions.

In Scotland, things have been slightly different. We were two days earlier into lockdown, and progress out has been slower and more cautious. Nicola Sturgeon has been holding daily press conferences, and taking questions, so that information has been more consistent and transparent. It has also been backed up by voiceovers from Glasgow comedian Janey Godley

(specimen here: https://www.facebook.com/janeygodleyfanpage/videos/vb.1680210945622928/2576371909242976/?type=2&theater)

which have provided much needed light relief. These have been so successful that ‘Frank get the door’ is now a catch phrase, and you can buy merchandise featuring it, some of which raises money for a children’s charity. In fact, I have sometimes had to explain that this is not the real First Minister!

I know there was some trepidation – some governments, the UK among them, apparently believed that their populations would not stand for it, some thought it would require draconian state controls, and there was a level of anxiety that we wouldn’t meet the minimum threshold to make it effective. And it has been a challenge, no doubt about it. It is human instinct to come together in times of trouble, hug, bring cake to friends, organise social events to cheer each other up, hold meetings to get things done. And this time we had to keep apart. Grandparents couldn’t help out with childcare when parents were trying to work from home, neighbours couldn’t call in to check that someone self-isolating was okay, you couldn’t put your arms around someone when they told you they had been bereaved or broke up with a partner or lost their job. We have been acting against our instincts, and that has been difficult.

We have been acting against the grain in other ways too. Those of us in urban environments have lived our lives in a way that is almost entirely defined by human choices – political and economic institutions, culture, law, peer pressure. When we don’t like something, we know that most of the time there is a person whose decision we need to challenge and change, someone whose hostility we need to dismantle, whose ignorance or misunderstanding we need to rectify. This time there has been no such human agency. No human brought the virus. No human knows how to cure it (yet). No human can make it go away or modify its path in any way, and we don’t like it. The impulse ‘not to give in’ is the one our culture most admires, and it’s the wrong one. The craving for decisive action has had to be put on hold, and going cold turkey is really tough. So there has been the usual denial, anger, conspiracy theories, superstitions and magical thinking, compensatory indulgence and distraction.

But we did it. Scottish people went into lockdown, sat at home, worked in our pyjamas, read stories to our grandchildren over the internet and protected each other. It wasn’t about ‘following the science’, it was about a culture of ‘compassion, kindness and solidarity’ (Nicola Sturgeon). There is a long way to go yet, but the death rate is close to 2%, not 25% as it was when the Black Death raged in the Middle Ages. It’s been emotional, but it may just have saved us all.

 

About Elizabeth Rimmer:

Elizabeth Rimmer is a poet, editor for Red Squirrel Press and occasional translator. She has published three collections of poetry with Red Squirrel Press: Wherever We Live Now (2011) The Territory of Rain (2015) and Haggards (2018), and is working on a fourth Burnedthumb, which will be out in 2021. Her website is at www.burnedthumb.com.

Life Under Lockdown, an article by Jessica Rydill


(Image: the meadows near our house)

 

25/06/2020

Life under Lockdown by Jessica Rydill

I may have had the virus, but I don’t know, and won’t know until they make antibody testing more widely available in this country. It’s possible I picked it up on a visit to friends in London in late February, when we attended a packed exhibition at Tate Britain on the work of 18th century artist, visionary and writer William Blake.

Some time after returning to Bath, my husband and I came down with what seemed like two odd viruses: one gastro-intestinal and the other causing a cough. Neither of us was seriously ill, but the viruses were noticeably unusual, and we lost our sense of smell.

In my case, the cough persisted for a long time, and there were episodes at the start where I coughed so badly I nearly passed out. I went to the doctor twice, and there was no evidence of problems with my lungs, but the cough persisted for months afterwards.

It is possible that it was a different type of coronavirus, not COVID-19 at all; there is no way of knowing. But what happened was that in late March, a week before the government put the whole country into lockdown, Stephen and I decided to self-isolate because we are in a high-risk category.

This meant that we stopped going out, except for exercise, and started to order our shopping online. We also bought some antiviral snoods, rather odd tubular things that you pull over your head and which make you look a bank robber in a stocking mask.

In the end, we remained under lockdown from late March to mid-June. We were not in one of the groups instructed to shelter by the government, but we were extremely fearful.

It is difficult to sum up the experience, but I think the word “terrifying” is apposite. We did not experience great hardship, like some people. We have not lost anyone dear to us, though friends have; but it is impossible not to recognise that something has happened, not just to England but to the world.

What do I think of? How kind some people were, especially at the outset. Our younger neighbours sent us notes offering to do shopping for us. The local pharmacy delivered our medications for a nominal charge. One neighbour brought round armfuls of bluebells from her garden. Every Thursday, we stepped out the front door to “clap for carers” and said hello to our next-door neighbours.

This was important for morale because apart from the odd visit to a local shop at the very beginning, we saw nobody.

At first, we could not for love nor money get our groceries delivered by any supermarket. They were all booked solid. And everywhere was cleaned out of loo roll, hand sanitiser, and staples like pasta and rice. A kind of mass hysteria set in and there were scenes on TV and social media of people fighting in the supermarket aisles, and of empty shelves.

Because we live on the edge of the countryside, we were able to place orders over the phone with local farm shops, and drive there to pick up our shopping. They would emerge from the store with a box of food and put it in our car boot. It all felt absurd, and exciting, and slightly frightening.

My mental health dropped off a cliff because though I see a therapist on a regular basis, the start of the lockdown coincided with the Easter break. After that, consultations continued by phone, but the three weeks of the Easter/Passover holiday were not good.

I was fairly convinced that I must have the virus, and that I was going to die. I spend quite a lot of time worrying about dying, and always have. This time, it felt like a certainty.

In fact, there have never been high levels of infection in this area, and relatively few deaths. But what one became aware of was other people dying, and the daily death toll; the reporting by government figures on television, and the bravado of the Prime Minister until he too became seriously ill.

And it was strange how people online turned to plague mythology and tropes. To reading The Plague by Albert Camus and The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.

(Image: Lormes and friends by Seed Arts)

I own two tiny figures made by resin artist Seed Arts that she calls Lormes. They are miniature versions of the iconic figure of the Plague Doctor, named after Renaissance French physician Charles de Lorme. Somehow, I found these tiny figures comforting, as if they had apotropaic properties, and was slightly distressed when I dropped one on the floor and couldn’t find him.

It made me aware once again how important culture and art are at a time like this. And we learned how to talk to friends via Zoom and Skype, so that we could have meetings and even birthday parties!

But the isolation played on us. We started to become reluctant to leave the house. To begin with, we had ventured out into the beautiful meadows at the rear of where we live, and tried to walk reasonably often. As the lockdown continued, we seemed to spend more and more time asleep in the daytime, and to stay up all night until long past dawn.

The astonishing peace and lushness of the countryside was noticeable, together with the flourishing of birds, animals and insects in the absence of humans. There were many fewer cars driving past out house; and once we went out for a drive and saw the city of Bath looking emptier than it had ever before.

And then the news came out about Dominic Cummings. The government’s chief adviser and the eminence grise to Boris Johnson. He had driven up to Durham with his wife, who was ill with the virus, and their children. He had stayed on his parents’ property and gone on an experimental drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

After that, it seemed somehow the government could no longer sustain the lockdown. It seemed as if they would do anything to preserve the reputation and status of this unelected individual, who refused to resign though in clear breach of regulations he himself had instituted.

What frightens me is the thought, however fugitive, that in order to justify their position, the government might have moved to relax the lockdown rules earlier than they would otherwise have done. Or because the public mood had shifted drastically due to Cummings and his excursion.

Politics can’t be left out of this altogether. This country has had an exceptionally high death rate for its size. And there is clear evidence that old people were discharged from hospital into care homes, where they infected other residents with the virus, and many died.


(Image: Empty Bath)

The government were supposed to be shielding these people. And in some instances, hospitals refused to treat gravely ill people who were suffering from conditions that were not coronavirus; they were sent home, and they died.

Though hospitals have been undoubtedly dealing with impossible circumstances, such as years of government underfunding of the NHS, and a lack of the PPE needed to keep their staff safe, it seems as though people have died who should not have died. They should have been protected.

Several of us whose parents died in recent years admitted that we were relieved that neither they nor we had to live through this crisis. But other friends did lose a parent; and there must be thousands of people across Britain (and the world) whose lives have been affected, and changed, by the virus and how it was dealt with.

Don’t even ask me about Trump or Bolsonaro.

So the current state of play is: not dead yet. We have started to emerge from lockdown. But we will be wearing face masks in the shops, even if people give us funny looks. And they do.

Whatever the government predicts, we will move at our own pace. But not everyone has that luxury, and that is wrong. No-one should be forced to return to work without adequate protection.

There has been something about the lockdown that is irreducible, impossible to capture. The incredible stillness of the fields with long grasses and wild flowers in the meadow. The silence. The city of Bath almost empty of cars and people.

It’s like a warning. A wake-up call. We live and die, we stand or fall, together. Or as Tom Lehrer said, “We will all go together when we go.”

 

About Jessica Rydill

Jessica Rydill is a fantasy author from the west country in England. Her first novel, Children of the Shaman, was short-listed in 2001 for the Locus award for best first novel.

Foreword to the “Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan

May 4th, 2020
Trento, Italy

 

Foreword to the “Quarantine Diaries”

As I write this, the country in which I’ve been living in for almost seven months is beginning to lift the lockdown. Today, the second phase of the quarantine was initiated, meaning that when my brother and I went out, we witnessed a Trento that more or less resembled the one we encountered upon first arriving here. Many of the coffee shops have reopened, along with the some of the bookstores. People are out and about—the only difference is that the masks have stayed; given the amount of people who still have to wear them for the purpose of entering any establishment, I predict we won’t be able to distinguish between medical professionals and ordinary citizens perhaps until the end of 2020; it’s a small price to pay, I guess, for regaining the tiny amount of freedom we had before (which, at this point, still constitutes much less mobility than pre-quarantine life).

In Italy, the national lockdown began on March 9th, 2020; before that, the virus had been spreading very quickly only throughout the north (mainly the Lombardy region), so the lockdown was restricted just to that area; however, when things began to really get out of control, the entire country was shut down, restricting any and all movement, except for the cases of absolute necessity. My brother and I were caught off-guard as our dad had arrived on February 23rd to visit us for three weeks and now had to return home; this proved to be particularly challenging as his inbound flight had been through Dublin, from where he had transferred to Munich and then taken a train to Trento; returning to Munich would at that time have been out of the question since Austria had already closed their borders with Italy. Eventually we decided to forfeit the ticket and had him fly out from Rome, which, thank God, worked out fine in the end. He left on the 14th of March and flew out on the 15th.

It’s on the Ides of March that these diaries began. The idea had been floating around in my head ever since it started becoming apparent that a lockdown of just the Lombardy region wouldn’t be enough; that was already more or less obvious as we began to approach the end of February (which is, incidentally, why my dad couldn’t simply fly into Milan). The real impetus to actually start the project happened when my brother and I realized that not only had our dad left, but that no family member would probably be able to visit us for a long time. Indeed, a person’s absence truly makes itself most noticeable the day after he or she leaves.

The first entry started as a joke, without much seriousness, talking about bidets and just trying to make the most out of the situation; it was less than a thousand words. As the days rolled on, however, the tedium of having to sit at home gradually took over and some of the pieces eclipsed two thousand words. Around day thirty, the entries themselves began to get very tedious; having foreseen that this would be a lengthy affair, I rightly started out by calling the project “Quarantine Diaries” in the plural sense to give myself the option of diversifying my writing. For the thirty first entry, thus, I switched to doing one poem a day, with the exception of the Armenian Genocide commemoration on April 24th, Italy’s Liberation Day on the 25th, and the fall of Berlin on May 2nd (at just over 3,000 words, this is the lengthiest one); that same day, Peter Robertson, the founder and editor of Interlitq, called me to discuss a possible end date. We arrived at the conclusion that fifty was a nice round number and given that Italy had more or less recovered, I suggested doing the final piece on May 3rd to effectively close this project. We were happy to find ourselves on the same page, so to say, and here we are at the end of it all.

I never imagined that I could not only hit fifty entries, but also do them consecutively without missing a day; while having written over 55,000 words, I can’t really call it non-fiction because there are seventeen poems of respectable length here, but it’s also not a poetry collection because the prose entries greatly outweigh the effort (in terms of strict length) I made with verse. I still don’t know what to really call this, except “Quarantine Diaries.” What I do know, however, is that it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that these diaries kept me sane and grounded. Giving myself the task to do one everyday gave something to look forward to once I saw the sun shine (yet again) through my window. In the midst of it all, we witnessed Italy’s darkest hour since WWII—on many occasions, up to a thousand people were dying in a single day and there was talk of having to possibly refuse treatment to the elderly because the hospitals simply may not have been able to handle it; things never came to that, so we avoided the worst, one might say.

I’m ready to move on with my life now and although these diaries were mostly for myself, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to leave a record for others about my own experiences. I opened myself up in ways that are unusual for me and, in that sense, the quarantine was a good thing; it made eccentricity and idiosyncrasy okay. If you’re forced to stay at home, the occasional odd perspective here and there is more or less tolerated by the community at large. I just hope that when this thing ends (and it will end) we can keep on accepting people’s oddities and peculiarities in the same way we did under quarantine. I don’t think we need a crisis to behave more like ourselves—to give us the excuse of being the person we’d like to be just because a pandemic gives us justification to act in the way we’ve always wished. Yes, the quarantine did bring out peculiarities in many people—these traits, however, were already things that were part of our characters to begin with; in other words, the pandemic simply brought the strange behavior to light—it didn’t actually create oddities that weren’t already there in every person.

We may not become better citizens at the end of all this, but I think we’ve been given the chance to be more like ourselves—without being afraid of what others might think. Moving forward, paradoxically, I’m going to try and retain a little of my quarantine character; I’m going to further discover who I really am and not worry about every single fucking opinion of those around me.

I’ll see you out on the streets, my friends.

 

Quarantine Diaries

Day 1 – Beware the Bidet

Day 2 – Distance

Day 3 – Bullshit

Day 4 – Humor Me

Day 5 – Whatever Happens

Day 6 – Patience and Time

Day 7 – Ruins

Day 8 – Thoughts from Left Field

Day 9 – American Flu

Day 10 – Development

Day 11 – Deviance

Day 12 – Nature

Day 13 – The Oldest Profession

Day 14 – Freedom

Day 15 – Live Free or Die

Day 16 – I Believe

Day 17 – Games

Day 18 – Risk

Day 19 – Hope

Day 20 – State of Nature

Day 21 – Slave to Society

Day 22 – Hungary

Day 23 – The Stranger Who Was Your Self

Day 24 – Cleanliness

Day 25 – Trento

Day 26 – Art

Day 27 – Masquerade

Day 28 – Hedonic Treadmill

Day 29 – Easter Blues

Day 30 – Change

Day 31 – Instinct

Day 32 – Perspective

Day 33 – To Go On

Day 34 – Attitude

Day 35 – Setting Sights

Day 36 – Unearthing

Day 37 – Some Day

Day 38 – Democrazy

Day 39 – Frame of Mind

Day 40 – Shield

Day 41 – Armenia

Day 42 – Liberation Day

Day 43 – Fate

Day 44 – Invisible

Day 45 – Duality

Day 46 – Remedy for Pain

Day 47 – Good Intentions

Day 48 – Mamihlapinatapai

Day 49 – Russia

Day 50 – Resolution

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 50)


(Photo by Tigran Hovhannisyan)

 

Quarantine Diaries – Day 50
May 3rd, 2020

Trento, Italy

 

Resolution

The end of any night
began when the first sunrise
climbed over the horizon.
Darkness remains an empire
oppressing the land—
still it recedes like a law
people are sick of following.
There’s no beginning
to a beginning,
and really no end
to an end.
Our fate is a wedding ring
stretching across the earth’s skin;
it’s a pair of boots
that can hold
all the world’s snow,
but we own just one shoe lace,
running from the Big Bang
to the lowest point on earth.
We live in a guitar
whose body can shelter
all the howls of mankind,
but there’s only one string
for us to play our nature.
There’s no escape from a prison
that no longer wants to imprison you.
There’s no progress in a science
whose vision doesn’t improve
as it grows older.
There’s no hope in a church which prays
for the sick only if people attend.
How much longer must our history
go on if its future is a wave
that starts at the ocean’s edge
and always comes back
to the same place?

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 49)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 49
May 2nd, 2020

Trento, Italy

 

Russia

Today marks the end of WWII in Europe and the complete destruction of Nazi Germany in the symbolic sense. The culminating battle in the city of Berlin lasted just over two weeks and saw roughly 70,000 to 80,000 casualties on the Soviet side alone. The iconic photo depicting the Soviet flag being raised over the Reichstag has acquired mythical status.

Nevertheless, this victory, at least in the United States, is always overshadowed by D-Day, which neither won the war nor was it even a decisive factor—so late in 1944—in bringing the conflict to an end. By the time the US had begun its Normandy landings, the USSR had already been driving the Germans back for three years and were beginning to initiate Operation Bagration, which, according to Arthur C. Hassiotis’s book, The Extraordinary Rise of the Russian Empire, would go on to inflict the biggest defeat in German military history; besides, he added that the “total collapse was the worst catastrophe in the history of the German Army, and the greatest in German military history.” Not bad, I would say.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had, already in the years of 1942-1943, secured a successful victory at Stalingrad, which was the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, involving the destruction of the entire German 6th Army, which was responsible for murdering 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in 1941; if anything, it was this battle that was the turning point of WWII. The city has captured the literary imagination of poets and writers, such as Langston Hughes, who wrote about it in “Good Morning, Stalingrad” and Carlos Drummond de Andrade who likewise pays homage to the city in “Letter to Stalingrad.” Likewise, six months before US troops landed in France, the Soviets had already concluded the nearly 900-day Siege of Leningrad, considered perhaps the longest and most gruesome in history, accumulating more casualties than US and British forces suffered during the entire war.

Alexander Werth, who was a correspondent for the London Sunday Times and BBC, accompanied Soviet troops as they pushed the Germans out of the city. Shortly after the siege was lifted, he interviewed numerous locals, later reporting that the ordeal claimed “the lives of an estimated 1,000,000 city residents.” Similarly, Harvard historian Michael Walzer further stated in his book, Just and Unjust Wars, that “More civilians died in the siege of Leningrad than in the modernist infernos of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, taken together.” In the US, however, none of this is really taken into consideration, as the Western Front dominates the discussion.

Nevertheless, those who know anything about WWII are aware that it was, in fact, the Eastern Front which was by far the most important theater of action; over a thousand miles long, nearly all extermination camps were liberated there, including Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which is, not coincidentally, when Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated. Furthermore, and most importantly, 75-80 percent of Nazi forces were expelled on the Eastern Front by the Red Army; hence, D-Day can’t hold the significance many ascribe to it, as the Eastern front—both in terms of length and ferocity—was the decisive theater of battle in Europe.

Except for Pearl Harbor, the war never reached US soil, making it possible for the country to lose less than half a million people in the entire conflict and allowing it to avoid the necessity of rebuilding any infrastructure; the USSR, on the other hand, lost twenty five million, and according to documents quoted at the Nuremberg Trials (now archived by the Yale Law School Library), the nation witnessed the destruction of “1,710 towns and more than 70,000 villages and hamlets. They [the German] burned and destroyed more than 6 million buildings and rendered some 25 million persons homeless.” Moreover, “the invaders destroyed 31,850 industrial works which employed some 4 million workers,” along with “36,000 postal and telegraphic offices, telephone centers, and other communication centers.” WWII had, thus, made the US the wealthiest country in the world while the USSR was forced to busy itself rebuilding a crumbling nation that had saved Europe from fascism.

It’s a miracle, then, that only sixteen years after this conflict, the USSR had the ability to gather enough resources and willpower to send not only the first man into space, but also the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, who made her flight on June 16, 1963; and if that wasn’t enough, the first space walk was also performed Alexei Leonov two years later.

It isn’t farfetched to say that the US went to the moon simply to beat the Russians, for what impressive feat has NASA done today when there’s no enemy to beat, so to say? Historically, the US has always thrived on conflict. Everything from the tyranny of the British Empire, to the savagery of Native Americans, along to the aggression of the USSR has been used as an instrument of justification by which this country has given itself the permission to act in tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways when implementing its domestic and foreign policy.

In fact on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgy Arbatov, an advisor to the Soviet Union, told US officials the following: “We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.” Indeed, the US has always justified other people’s tyranny, savagery, and aggression to interfere in foreign affairs in similarly tyrannical, savage, and aggressive ways. In a 1985 interview with Noam Chomsky, Marshall Goldman, and Russ Johnson, the latter, a Senior Program Associate for the American Friends Service Committee, stated that the US has over two thousand military bases scattered all across the world and that if the Martians came down to earth, they would see the US as the expanding threat to the rest of the world, not Russia (this particular audio bit starts at 4:29).

Let’s leave politics aside for a minute, however, and discuss the important contributions that women made in the fight for freedom during WWII. Sending the first man and woman to space is a wonderful accomplishment; however, very few are aware of the indispensable roles that women played in the aforementioned conflict. Indeed, it was the Soviet Union which first allowed female pilots to fly combat missions; members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment were known as the Night Witches. These regiments consisted of almost one hundred young pilots who flew a combined total of 30,000 missions, producing more than twenty Heroes of the Soviet Union, including two fighter aces, Yekaterina Budanova (shot down at the age of twenty six on her last mission, 19 July 1943, near Novokrasnovka) and Lydia Litvyak (shot down at the age of twenty one on August 1, 1943 after taking off from her base at Krasnyy Luch).

Besides fighter pilots, the Soviets employed women as snipers with great success, of which Lyudmila Pavlichenko, with 309 confirmed kills, became the most successful female sharpshooter in history. Equally impressive is Roza Shanina, whom the Ottawa Citizen described as “the unseen terror of East Prussia” in a September 20th, 1944 article. She died on January 28th, 1945 at the age of twenty in the East Prussian Offensive. It’s hard to imagine the woman below earning that title.

It’s for all these reasons that, to this day, I’m discouraged to see the constant lack of recognition by the US for the sacrifices which the Soviets made—sacrifices that allowed them (a country isolated from the rest of Europe by an ocean) to become the richest and most powerful in the world without making nearly the same sacrifices that everyone else made; even this arrogance can be survived, however; but when the US somehow claims to have won the war by landing on the beaches of Normandy, you really have no choice but to hate everything that it represents—its unchecked capitalism which has destroyed an entire generation of young people; its anti-intellectual atmosphere and idiotic obsession with sports (no, you’re not the world champion of anything that anyone besides you cares about—try football, European style, for a change); but most of all I hate its free yellow journalism media which uses any excuse to blame Russia for its own faults and shortcomings. And why in the world did we name one of the most prestigious literary prizes after a guy—Pulitzer—who with the help of Hearst basically furnished a war with Spain by publishing false reports in their newspapers; only the greatest country in the world is capable of such insanity.

For all intents and purposes, yes, I’m a US citizen, but I’m also a product of the European continent. I was born in Armenia in 1987, when it was still a Soviet republic and I moved to Germany with my parents right after the system collapsed. I only came to the US in 1999, at the age twelve, on the verge of being a teenager. Despite being naturalized and swearing the oath ten years later, I can’t say I ever fully became an American—whatever that means (when I visited Mexico in 2012, the Mexicans cautioned me in claiming the label all for myself). Indeed, Mexico is part of the continent, but let’s leave that aside for now and continue with my attempt to become less patriotic.

My grandfather, Artashes Garyan, who passed away in the year 2000, was a dedicated communist; he believed in the system. He was both naïve and an idealist in the sense of Don Quixote, but he was, likewise, a good man who was prepared to make every sacrifice for the good of his family.

The exact date of his birth is unknown; however, he was born in the year 1924. On the eve of defending his completed PhD dissertation (Kandidat nauk), his advisor, Lisovsky (who had always joked that among Armenians there are only the very brightest and the extremely stupid) died suddenly, and my grandfather was forced to find a new chair who would administer the defense of his dissertation. The Soviet system is a little confusing in the fact that there are two stages for the PhD. According to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED), the Kandidat nauk is considered by Western standards to be the equivalent of the doctoral degree (level eight). If a graduate wishes to be considered a “doctor” in the USSR, however, the Kandidat nauk would have to complete the second stage of the PhD to attain the Doktor nauk, which usually required ten years of additional research after the first stage of the entry level dissertation. My grandfather only completed the first stage (as shown below).

His so-called doctoral work in the Soviet sense is still in Vanadzor (though undefended) in the possession of my grandmother, Tatyana Zhukovskaya (affectionately known as Batanya in our family).

My grandfather met his future wife in Moscow’s Gorky Park in 1957; at that time, he was studying at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State Technological University, and my grandmother worked as a cook in a cafeteria. On a casual stroll with his friend, they encountered two women picking phlox (my grandmother’s favorite flowers); they played a prank on them by pretending to be the police and asking for their papers. Subsequently, my grandfather asked where this Tatyana worked; she responded, “in a clinic,” which was a lie. When my grandmother didn’t show up for the date she had promised him, he went looking for this Tatyana in every hospital in Moscow. It seemed that fate was against him, but he nevertheless ran into Tatyana—at a clinic—by chance; she was trying to obtain an excuse from a doctor to skip work that day and go to the movies with her friends.

The rest is history: They married in 1958 and moved to Vanadzor a year later.  She still lives there to this day in the same apartment, which I remember very well. This is a photo shortly after their marriage.

My grandmother was born on March 8, 1932 in the village of Zhukovo, near the border of Belarus. She endured a most difficult childhood because of the war, almost starving to death. In her childhood imagination, she described witnessing rivers bleeding red and Soviet war machinery stuck in the mud. She described running barefoot through the snow and eating potato peels. She described her younger brother, Viktor, dying in front of her eyes of starvation. She described her saving grace—a friend named Lola afflicted by mental health problems, who had given her a few potatoes that saved the family from starvation. All this she described and much more that I can’t remember now.

Still, how she encountered two pilots who gave her some coins is coming back to my mind, along with her story of the hungry Nazi soldier chasing a pig. And, yes, how she fell asleep in the forest from exhaustion one time, causing her mother, Pelageya, to worry sick—a villager named Taras later discovered her. Stories like this stay in your mind no matter how many times you’ve forgotten them. Looking at this picture, I fully understand both the beauty and cruelty of time; it destroys youth but also numbs memory—my grandmother’s smile in old age is a testament to her strength.

Despite the family’s perseverance, however, when the threat became too great, authorities evacuated them to Mariinsk in the far east, where they spent almost two years with Kukai and Kukzai, two of the local villagers. Perhaps the most gracious people in the entire settlement, the native couple had a son who was in the war; by God’s grace, he returned when it was all over and afterwards sent my grandmother’s family a letter—the only part of which she remembers is a sentence of incorrect Russian: “вы очень хорошие человеки.” The last word, “человеки,” means humans, which wouldn’t be the proper usage in Russian; however, because they mostly spoke the local native language, the son couldn’t make the distinction between the aforementioned word and the correct term for the occasion, “люди,” which means people. The whole sentence means: You’re very good people.

My grandmother’s uncle, Emelyan Ivanovich Zhukovsky, met a tragic end in 1937, four years before the war even hit the home front. The story goes that in a drunken revelry he and his friends sang a crude political song: “Сегодня убили Кирова, завтра убьют Сталина.” Today they killed Kirov; tomorrow they’ll kill Stalin. Under Stalin, countless people were denounced and disappeared without a trial. After some searching, we managed to find Emelyan’s record on this website, which lists his date of birth as 1908. He was arrested on the 15th of April and sentenced to ten years under article 58 section 10, which was anti-Soviet agitation; most of the people charged under this code were executed right away. According to the website he was rehabilitated by the government on the 22nd of June, 1992.

My great-grandfather, Alexey, was coerced at gunpoint by the Germans into becoming a collaborator; he was tasked with collecting intelligence and spying on the village, earning him the title “chief.” He double-crossed the Germans, however, and began hiding Soviet partisans (whom my grandmother remembers seeing) in the house. The Soviets made no attempt to find out what he was really up to—they shot him on the spot for treason; one of the partisans later said: “What have you done? He was helping us.” So it goes. This is just one family’s story. There are undoubtedly millions of tales like the one I’ve told all over the Russia and the former republics it once commanded, which is why colossal memorials, such as the Tiergarten monument in East Berlin, were erected to honor the dead.

This nation lost more than 25,000,0000 people to win the war; I think these sacrifices must be recognized because they’re real and the suffering people endured will not be forgotten. It, thus, upsets me deeply when the US turns a cold shoulder on these stories, focusing solely on their own sacrifices. A worthy read is John Dower’s 2017 article “Why Can’t Americans Remember Anyone’s Death Other Than Those of Their Own?” Published in The Nation, the title alone says enough, but speaking about the US, adding the following may help drive the point home: “Apart from the Civil War, its war-related fatalities have been tragic but markedly lower than the military and civilian death tolls of other nations, invariably including America’s adversaries.” In this respect, I’m truly torn—as a naturalized US citizen, I swore allegiance to this country, but if war did break out between the two countries, could I, like Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita, make war on my own relatives? I don’t think so.

Walking around the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, I spotted this war poster. It’s hard to believe that the narrative between the US and Russia was once like this.

Hopefully one day—barring a war—we can go back to normal. In fact, relations between the two countries were even better before WWII. Before 1917, Russia was the only formidable power “with which the United States had neither a war, nor serious diplomatic dispute.” Russian support for the American Revolution even led President Jefferson to declare that “Russia is the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth.” During the Civil War, likewise, Russia was the only European power to support the Union, which led President Lincoln’s Secretary of State to proclaim that Russia “has our friendship, in preference to any other European power.” And who can forget the similarities between Czar Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln; it was, indeed, the former who freed his serfs on February 19, 1861 as the US followed suit and brought liberty to the slaves a couple years later, according to The New York Times. Both men were assassinated. A statue of the czar and the president was erected in 2011 on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street in Moscow to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alexander II’s liberation.

I do envision a day where relations between both countries will be cordial again. It would be for the betterment of everyone to see these great powers on the same side.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with a full collection, (DISS)INFORMATION, with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.