Jewish World Review August 13, 2013/ 7 Elul, 5773
By Paul Greenberg
The news out of
Like its seasons,
This tragedy is restaged again and again. The cast may be different, but the script stays the same. And the ending is never a happy one. The only question, as with
It's as if the Russian Revolution had become stuck in just one phase of the French Revolution, that model for all modern revolutions: the Reign of Terror. The terror might wax and wane, but it never goes away.
Her father, my grandfather, had died during the war. Her eldest brother, Avrom, disappeared in the postwar war after formal hostilities had ceased. Half a century later, safe in America, she couldn't believe it when she heard that the Russians had launched a spacecraft and were headed for the moon. ("What? They couldn't even find their way around Mordt!") The only tsar she ever really knew was His Imperial Majesty Chaos.
By the time my mother made it to America, a 19-year-old girl traveling alone in steerage, she would be illiterate in three languages, knowing just enough German, Russian and Polish to help her survive. And she would step off the boat hungry to learn this strange, unphonetic language called English. Years later I would bring my little blue speller home from school every day so we could learn the words together. She was still studying.)
She would also be a fanatical scrimper, saver and mender who never ceased working, if only on the sweater or quilt she was knitting at the time. My mother would spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder, fearful that somebody would come along any minute and take all this away from her, this dreamland called America.
Her English remained imperfect, her native Yiddish sharp, and her silence most eloquent of all. The look of wordless contempt she would fix on anyone who dared criticize America in her presence could fill volumes. For who knows America who knows only America?
Her youngest son, American-born, would one day read about the chaos and confusion that reigned after our own Civil War, and how bands of assorted marauders or just opportunists with an eye out for the main chance, Confederate deserters or Yankee carpetbaggers, would roam the Southern countryside, picking over the ruins. It all seemed strangely familiar to him. From family stories about the old country. Different countries, different histories, same human condition.
Whether a Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov, a Slavophile or Westernizer, poet or nuclear scientist, the voice out of the wilderness captures the attention not just of Russians, but of the world. It's a recurrent pattern that goes back to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Nobody elects or appoints these seers; they just appear. As if out of the Russian soul.
It was Solzhenitsyn who said a writer is a kind of second government. Only with more authority than the first, maybe because it is moral authority.
The latest voice out of the Russian wilderness is a mod dissenter uncowed by the threats he faces from those in political power. A tweeting prophet in shirtsleeves, he towers above his persecutors -- natural, direct, unafraid. His name is Alexei Navalny, and this is what he told the court that would convict him of the usual trumped-up charges:
"If somebody thinks that having heard the threat of this six-year imprisonment I would run away abroad or hide somewhere, they are badly mistaken. I cannot run away from myself. I have no other option and I don't want to do anything else. Not one of us has the right to be neutral. Not one of us has the right to shirk from doing what's necessary to make our world better. Each time someone thinks, 'Why don't I step aside and simply everything will happen without me and I'll wait?' he only helps this disgusting feudal regime that sits like a spider in the Kremlin."
Within a day after his conviction, Alexei Navalny was unexpectedly released. For now he's free to resume his campaign for mayor of
Yes, it's tempting to give up on
JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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