The monarchist Vasily Rozanov said that in Russia change happens quickly—in one-and-a-half or two days. Examples given were the Czar and the Army disappearing in two or three days, the elimination of the Patriarchy under Peter, and more lately, the demise of the Soviet Union. One day there was the Hammer and Sickle flying over The Kremlin, and the next day it was gone. The eminent Oxford professor Andre Zorin quoted Rozanov at a Summer Literary Seminar in St. Petersburg in 2004.
“Suddenly” is a word much used by Russians. I remember in a past writing workshop we were told never to use the word “suddenly” —that only Dostoevsky could use that word. That nothing in fiction happens without a stated or hinted reason. In Dostoevsky’s “White Nights” he uses the word seven times in the first five pages. I used the word in my poem, “Russian Rivers,” “Suddenly, a foreign ray permeates the ice.” In Russian history it is often the foreign ray, or light, or idea, or perspective that drives Russia and Russians–sometimes crazy. Zorin used two words repeatedly in his lecture—“suddenly” and “incredible.” Those two words are apt when discussing Russian history and culture.
I mentioned to Zorin that it seemed to me that, like an earthquake, human events do not usually happen quickly. We feel them in a moment, but underneath the causal elements were long before inexorably moving toward a future explosion. We, on the surface of things, measuring only what our senses tell us or what we want to believe, feel only the culminating shock. I held up my hand and offered that The Russian Revolution started long before 1917—maybe in the 1860s when the artists in St. Petersburg, “The Wanderers,” rejected the European influence and moved near Moscow and began the great paintings of the Russian common man. Other hands went up and the protest was “No, it was the writers like Belinsky, Bakunin, etc. early in 1830s and the influence of the Enlightenment. The Czars were blind to this. Likewise, the Soviet Union was crumbling years before the flag came down, but we didn’t know it or want to know it. (Military-industrial complex pressures?) The Twin Towers collapsed in 102 minutes. Surely the inertia for that disaster began years before, unnoticed or ignored by political leaders.
Then on the other hand, there is the unpredictability of everyday Russian life. Do things happen suddenly, or are the shocks of life always the lack of a preconscious ignorance of predicting clues? If we were so smart to notice and measure all the tremors of coming explosions, we might be prepared for the resulting shocks. But then life, especially ironic Russian life, would not be judged so eloquently by the masters like Dostoevsky.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”