White Square

Naked Valkyries are ve-ry ve-ry spiritual!

, , Dasha Shiskin, 400 Series. 2004, etching. Courtesy of the artist and Fridman Gallery.

For Kirill Serebrennikov

Host Hello, and welcome to White Square! Today we’re going to talk about Russia. Russia “shall be unknowable to foreign sages for centuries and centuries,” as we sing in an old song. The truth is that our great, fantastical, and, in many ways, unpredictable country continues to prompt questions not only among foreign sages—that’s putting it gently—but also among our own countrymen. Recently I spoke to an old friend—an Orthodox man, a patriot, an intellectual deeply familiar with our history and culture. And yet this man confessed that after living in Russia for forty-odd years he still didn’t understand exactly what our country was. Can you imagine? Now, we’re not here to discuss our political system. Every kindergartner knows that Russia is a federal, democratic state, with a president and a parliament. Instead what we ask is: What is our image of the country? What does it look like to people? What associations does it carry? Everyone has their own image of Russia. I’m sure that many of these images line up with what others have in mind. Some may not. And no, I’m not just talking about what the fifth column thinks. In fact this diversity simply shows yet again, in all of its ebbs and flows, the deep mysteriousness of Russia. Shows—ebbs and flows! I’m speaking in rhyme, that’s how important our topic is today! Let’s really talk about this. Today, as always, four guests are sitting around our square, white table. You probably recognize some of them. But you know our rule on White Square: first names and professions only. No ranks, positions, or uniforms. And so: Irina is a municipal employee, Yuri is a military man, Anton is a theater director, and Pavel is a businessman. Respected guests of the program, I have one question for all of you: What do you think Russia looks like? Please!

Applause.

Irina  Why is everyone looking at me? (Laughs.)

Host Ladies first.

Irina Of course. Well, in that case, I’ll begin. You know what Russia feels like to me? A song. That sounds a little naive, doesn’t it?

Host Not at all.

Irina There you go, then. . . a song. A song. A long, sad song. I heard the song when I was still a child, when I couldn’t even talk—I heard someone singing it in the winter. I can remember how cold it was—all the windows in our town were frozen. And whenever anyone says “Russia,” whenever anyone says it slowly and draws it out, that melody comes to mind. I remember the frost on the windows, my grandma in the kitchen, her sturgeon pie, my little brother, our furry cats, the street with its big drifts of snow, our kindly neighbors. I remember the games we played, the long days at school, the long nights full of dreams, and then, suddenly, I remember this childish feeling that, well, we live in a very large country, a mighty and powerful country, that somewhere out there, really, really far away, is Moscow, with its Kremlin and its Spasskaya Tower, and that when I grow up, I’ll go there and see it all for myself. And the song goes on and on. Just like it always was. And for as long as it continues, for as long as we keep singing it, know its words, and remember its melody, Russia shall survive.

Applause.

Host That’s fantastic, Irina! I think a lot of people in our country are familiar with this image. It rings very true to them. There is no Russia without music. Anton, are you ready?

Anton Yes, of course. Irina put it very well. A song. A song from her childhood. A song is unforgettable. It etches itself into your memory for your entire life. For me, that song is “Blue Train Car,” which somehow eclipsed all the Russian folk songs we sang in my family and at school. It’s the only song that’ll stay with me forever. But I don’t want to talk about songs. I want to talk about my image of Russia. I admit it’s a bit different from Irina’s. When I think of our country, I imagine it as a huge louse. An enormous louse. A. . . monstrously large louse. The louse is completely frozen and in hibernation. Geographically speaking, it’s as big as Russia: its head and its, what do you call it, its pedipalps are located near our border with Belarus, right around Chop. Its butt hangs out over the Pacific Ocean, near Sakhalin Island. This gigantic louse is sleeping. It’s not moving at all. It doesn’t wake up often, but when it does, what a joy for all of us. We live atop this icy monster, slide around on its back, get frightened by it, admire its unusual shape, and wait for it to wake up. We wait with impatience and awe. Sometimes for decades, like we are now.

Applause.

Host Hmm. . . No wonder your plays always provoke such outrage, Anton. What’s the latest with the lawsuit over your production of Dead Souls, by the way?

Anton We’re gonna win.

Host Oh, really?

Laughter.

Anton The lawyers’ living souls will help!

Laughter.

Host Send my best to their living souls! Anyway, while we must of course discuss every image in detail, everyone must first have the chance to speak. Yuri!

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