THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 

 
MANHATTAN CHRONICLES BOOK EXCERPT
BORN IN the USSR 
By VASILE ERNU
Translation by FLORIN BICAN 
From the book BORN IN USSR
 
Published:  Fall 2010

Born in the USSR: By way of introduction

I left the country in 1990. To paraphrase Vladimir Mayakovsky, I could say: read this and envy – I too was once a citizen of the Soviet Union. The USSR is the country, the motherland I was born and lived in. It is a country that couldn’t leave one feeling lukewarm. One is bound to either love it or hate it. I do hope, nonetheless, that what’s going to come up in these pages will be neither the love nor the hatred, assuming, of course, there’s a discernible difference between the two. Yet whatever it is, one thing is certain – it’s not going to be lukewarm.

The Soviet Union was not just a country. Much more than just that, it was the grandest of all utopian political projects of the modern world. One cannot help marvelling at it, being fascinated by it, and such fascination gives way to abiding memories and deep-going wounds. In the words of the post 1918 revolutionary intelligentsia, that was the place where art would not imitate life, but life itself was supposed to become a form of art. That was the place where we all lived out the most staggering political scenario of the 20th century, with heroic drives, inhuman efforts, ghastly tragedies, gory victories and defeats. That’s where we lived out a scenario in which we were all contemporaneous with one another. Our heroes, our personalities and our literary characters, our words and our objects, regardless of the historic time they were born and lived in, shared with us the komunalka going by the name of USSR, as our simultaneous predecessors and contemporaries.

I witnessed one of the most extremely utopian projects of mankind, I witnessed an unfinished process, I was there for the glory and the collapse of that utopia. That’s what I’m going to try and tell you about. Everything I’m writing here originates in a two-sided experience which is not necessarily unique. It is, on the one hand, the immediate experience of a citizen at home in the Soviet space, doubled by a livresque, culturally-acquired experience. They jointly define me as a product made in USSR. It’s nearly impossible for me to distinguish between the two. My narrative perspective, however, is that of homo sovieticus, an undeniable product of that land and its culture. I propose, therefore, to avoid making direct use of the intellectual paraphernalia I have acquired since.

I’m going to attempt a sort of archaeological approach to daily life in the former Soviet Union, in the endeavour to arrive at a metaphor for Soviet culture and civilization. The ensuing text, bearing the unavoidable marks of a “heretical genre”, aims at a puzzle-like synthesis of topics, heroes, situations, memories, objects and key words. Although each piece of the resulting text-puzzle can be read separately, the whole can only be perceived by methodically assembling the jigsaw. The subsequent construction makes no claim to being an exact replica, in terms of objectivity and accuracy, of Soviet culture as we knew it. It is rather an exercise in subjective, personal archaeology, primarily concerned with tracing the contours of a culture, with capturing its overall “mood”, so to say, its recurrent thought- and speech patterns, in short, with sketching the Soviet cultural mentality. Neither does this archaeological exercise propose a key meant to foster understanding, nor does it pass moral or value judgments. It is simply meant to induce a familiarization of sorts, with a view to assisting each and every one of us in the comprehension of what the Soviet Union actually was, and – more to the point – what its absence actually means.

Recounting the daily life of past times automatically poses all the risks associated with nostalgia – there’s no doubt about that. Yet nostalgia as a concept clashes with the very idea of homo sovieticus for the simple reason that nostalgia is a form of past-oriented utopia, whereas he operates with future-oriented utopias. Moreover, nostalgia as a form of homecoming is well-nigh impossible since for our lot there’s no such thing as home anymore. Thus, if there’s any nostalgia to speak of, it is not of the kind that embarks upon reconstructing the past, but rather of the kind that resolves itself in the attempted recording of memories from the past. As nostalgia, at least in theory, is not so unrelated to irony – both operate with the joint contemplation of the object and the subject – I take the liberty of combining the two, and thus look back with a mixture of nostalgia and irony.

As I look back I sense that along with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and communism something’s been lost. Can’t tell exactly what. Perhaps a certain pathos has been lost, a certain way of looking at things in the pursuit of daily life, perhaps the enthusiasm it takes to still believe in ideals, perhaps a certain approach to suffering. I am unable to define the loss with any degree of accuracy, yet I do experience acutely the chagrin of this loss. And I do believe that an essential and significant part of our human experience has been lost. That particular loss, however, can neither be replaced nor redeemed. I’ve come to believe, though I have to confess it cost me some effort, that the most we can do about this loss is try to understand it.

From time to time I feel the urge to book a ticket back to the USSR, and each time I have to remind myself such things are not on sale anymore. There’s no train, no plane and no road that can take one back to the USSR, for the simple reason that the Soviet Union no longer exists. The only way for me to visit my country is resorting to memory. The following text is the narrative reminiscence of that incredible adventure.

Pioneers pour toujours

I’m giving you my pioneer word for it, cross my heart – on the exact day I had been appointed to become an Oktobret (that’s a sort of Cub Scout), during my first school year, I mysteriously failed to turn up for the occasion. I duly grieved, as you may well imagine, on account of not taking part in the ritual meant to promote me to the ranks of Lenin’s grandchildren. All the same, I found myself unceremoniously joining the Oktobrets as a matter of course, and was consequently proud to don the badge testifying to my exalted position – the little red star embossed with the angelic face complete with gold curls of the child Volodya Ulyanov.

YES – Lenin was himself a child,

YES – Lenin was a schoolboy, too,

And in his schoolbag, long ago,

He’d tote a primer, just like you.

In retrospect, I came off with flying colours. I excelled in my studies, I was well-behaved and, as a natural consequence, I was awarded the Diploma of Merit year after year after year.

As I was growing up I had to enter the next phase: I was to become a Pioneer. A different level altogether, with a whole different set of responsibilities. There was no shortage of exemplary pioneer-heroes: Volodya Dubinin, Marat Kazey, Valya Kotik, Zyna Portnova, Lyonya Golykov. Since once in our lifetimes we were all pioneers, we can recite our way through such names at the drop of a hat. O the awesome moment, O the excitement of having to take the oath of allegiance! O the amount of preparation! “I, Vasile Ernu, on joining the ranks of the Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union, solemnly vow before my comrades: to love my Motherland. To live, learn and struggle along the guidelines set forth by the great Lenin, as taught by the Communist Party. I shall always comply with the laws of the Soviet Union pioneers…”. It’s over to you now – you ought to know how it goes on from here.

The old Oktobret badge was replaced by another, showing young-boy Volodya Ulyanov as the grown-up Vladimir Ilitch Lenin. “That spells grown-up responsibilities, to be sure,” I thought to myself as the fabled crimson kerchief signalling pioneerhood was being tied around my neck. To the flourish of trumpets and the rolling of drums, the girl in command of our detachment saluted briskly as she called out loud: “Pioneers! Onwards for the struggle for Lenin’s ideals! Be prepared!”, while we, replicating her stance, replied with a chorus of “We are prepared at all times!”. Then we all plunged in a song featuring blue skies and waxing enthusiastic about our being working-class children and happy about it, too. It turned out to be our anthem: “Svesti kastrami/ Sinie nochi/ Mi pyoneri/ Deti rabochih”.

The first days after donning the pioneer neck kerchief were not too bad. We were rather enjoying the whole thing. In the morning our mothers would iron the said kerchiefs neatly, and later on we went through the procedure ourselves prior to tying them with a perfect knot. In order to make the perfect knot one had to master an exquisite art. The more adept of our number could tie their kerchiefs in a cowboy-style knot. Perpetrators were duly reprimanded, though. With time we started forgetting the rag of discord at home, abandoning it forlornly in the gym, or stuffing it carelessly in our schoolbags or pockets, thus inviting further reprimands. The pioneer was expected to comply with a certain set of regulations, to set forth a model of conduct. Everything was supposed to be just like in the movies and books which had made such a lasting impression on us. Hadn’t we read Arkadiy Gaydar’s book Timur and His Team over and over again? As for the movie, hadn’t we watched it to distraction? Yet in every-day life it’s a difficult matter to step into the shoes of such exalted heroes.

Nevertheless, a Pioneer’s life was not without its attractions. We did try to follow the example of our heroes. We were organized into detachments. We’d go over to help some old woman dig her garden or stack up her fire wood. We’d undertake to collect old paper, scrap iron, acacia seed, camomile blossoms. The occasion engendered passionate contests. As far as scrap iron and old paper were concerned, I ruled supreme. Why that? Well, in my case, Dad was in charge of stocking the local shops, and in this capacity granted me access to all the paper they discarded; at the same time, the Dad of one of my classmates was a supervisor of sorts at the workshop for repairing heavy machinery. You can easily figure out the sheer amount of paper and iron we disposed of. We were victorious on all fronts. We were Stakhanovists in the making. On the one hand we won the contest, and on the other we came to understand how important it was to know the right people. The Party will always remember you. Still we shouldn’t forget athletic contests. They were a glorious event. Just like the military-athletic games Zarnitsa or Arlyonok. I used to captain a team, and brought it all the way to the regional finals. Oh, and there were also such games as KVN, the club of the cheerfully inventive. The fun I had there! And how could I ever forget the “marching and singing parade” on the 23rd of February, The Red Army Day. “Detachment, attentiooon!” “Detachment, line up!” “Detachment, turn right!” It was all very exhausting, yet enjoy it I did.

Then summer would come and we’d all leave in organized groups for pioneer camps. There we’d have a break from our parents and from grownups in general. There were, of course, pionervajatie, pioneer- and camp overseers, but let me tell you a secret – they were, as a rule, young female students, doing their pedagogic training, and it was a pleasure not to cross them. They were all of them the real stuff. So very much so that we’d dream of them at night.

I, too, went to pioneer camp, yet not to Artek, unfortunately.

                                                                                               Vasile Ernu is an award-winning novelist born in the USSR, and now living in Romania (EU).