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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements


Voskresenye, 28 Yanvar’ 2007

The entrance hall to the little apartment that secretly houses Kyiv’s infoshop is full of shoes, and each shoe releases a puddle of black water as the muddy snow filling its treads begins to melt.  The people who have come to the presentation depart in groups back into that snowy world, and the shoes disappear, but the puddles grow and conjoin.  I fill a bucket with water and push a mop side to side.  The featherweight kitten they’ve adopted attacks the mop with zeal.  Yeva, the demanding two-year-old daughter of Vlasta, who has also stayed to clean up, insists on taking over, and of course she does it all wrong, from the perspective of one who wants to clean the floor in a reasonable amount of time.  And before her, I was doing it all wrong, from the perspective of one who has no time for boring repetition and needs to see what interesting forms this mess of mud and water can take.  I do my best to explain to her Proper Methods of Mopping Very Muddy Floors and, perhaps amused by my strange accent and childish vocabulary, she humours me, though soon goes on to pursuits more permissive of the layman’s creativity.  Ha ha!  The Ivory Tower of Professionalism is once again defended from an insufficiently obsequious apprentice!

As the floor slowly turns white I think about the presentation—“Nonviolence or a Diversity of Tactics?”  Some time after arriving in Kyiv they invited me to give a talk at their infoshop and of the few I offered this was the topic that interested them the most.  I had done something similar in Berlin and Groningen, and in the US before I left, on the basis of a book I wrote criticizing nonviolence. Every time had been much the same because I could draw on a common heritage of official history, interlinked movements, and culture.  But here on the other side of the old Iron Curtain I couldn’t just drop the name of Martin Luther King or the buzzphrase “diversity of tactics” and expect them to know what I was talking about.  So I planned for a talk with less historical reference, more analysis of the philosophical and practical weaknesses of nonviolence, useful frameworks for an effective diversity of tactics, and so forth.  A lot of people came and Andrey, the translator, did a good job and got help from English-fluent audience members, but I felt like there was a failure to communicate.  People had asked a number of questions that seemed to miss the point and suggested the questioners thought I had my head in a burlap sack.

Afterwards I realized that the lack of a common history had created a much wider gulf than I was imagining. Nonviolence wasn’t even a concept in Russian—the translation was “not-violent methods.”  And here I was refusing to define violence because the dichotomy is counterproductive, thinking I’m talking about a philosophy and practice when through the translator I’m actually criticizing an ill-defined set of actions and advocating instead another ill-defined set of actions. The Soviet Union had so destroyed social movements, and such movements were especially slow to reemerge in Ukraina for some reason, that apparently the conversations about nonviolence and militancy as philosophies and practice had never taken place—to a certain extent they were still looking for tactics, rather than the analysis that binds them together.

Damn I felt stupid…

Kyiv sky

Sreda, 7 Fevral’

Today I learned that natives of Kyiv are reputed to speak an especially fast and convoluted version of Russian, so now I don’t feel so bad about my lengthy tribulations with the language.  In any case, Russian has an extremely complicated and fickle grammar, which makes it all the more gratifying as it haltingly begins to flow from my own mouth.  But all the times friends back home—or, ahem, editors—have told me my sentences are too long and complicated come back to me and make me want to live in Kyiv—or for that matter Berlin, German being similar in this respect—where four dependent clauses in one sentence is nothing to write home about.

What’s more, to speak Russian you need a comparatively huge operative vocabulary because their words are so specific, whereas we tend to get by with just a few stock verbs that each carry a bathtub full of meanings.  For example in a detailed Russian-English dictionary the word “go” will take up three whole pages because each of our various meanings requires a distinct Russian verb.  Anyhow this evening I was hanging out with Katya, Andrey, Vlasta, and an anarchist visiting from Slovakia.  It seems to me that when Slavs get together they like to compare notes on accents and idiom; of course the best thing to do is trade jokes and learn foreign curse words and tongue-twisters—skorogovorka—and amidst all our polyglottonous perambulations I realized, mid-sentence (I think the sentence was: “It’s like one of those jokes that everybody knows, like “why did the chicken—” ”) that these people had never heard the joke: why did the chicken cross the road?  Here I was, nigh on quarter of a century old, about to tell people my own age for their very first time why the chicken crossed the road.  The godfather of all English-language jokes!  It was so exciting, I had to get up and do a little dance first.  And the best thing?  Because we really don’t know, in the court of world opinion, whether that joke is funny or not, to us it’s more an example of a joke, a sentence that signifies a joke rather than a joke in itself, we’ve already heard the punchline in utero… So the best thing?  They laughed!  Substantially!  (Maybe it was my dance?)  Sweet! N’est-ce pas?

Vtornik, 13 Fevral’

My mom has had to go back to the States for back surgery.  This year she gets to retire from her hated job, but she has not escaped soon enough.  Too many stressful hours behind a desk have ruined her spine.  But it seems as though her life will only begin after retirement.  She’s like a small child, in the best possible sense, planning out what she wants to do with her life, though on the bad days she wonders if the years of work have stolen her health before setting her free.  It’s funny: her passions were languages and travelling, so she started this career thinking it would let her be who she wanted to be.  Her parents, in their time, had escaped generations of poverty in the South by becoming a career officer in the military and the attendant housewife.  And my little brother, now, is being vigorously prepared for a similar compromise.  He’s living with my mother this year, attending an international school and trying desperately to graduate.  John is a natural genius with a camera and with any musical instrument he picks up, but the bureaucratic demands of high school leave him little energy to develop these talents: he has to learn chemistry equations he might never use again in his life, he has to complete homework assignments that may or may not be helpful for him, and his own particular needs and idiosyncrasies are considered irrelevant in this process.  Every day he comes home I see they’ve beaten a little more of that vital spark out of him.

School is the prison for the submissive, like prison is the school for the defiant.  The successful students adopt the challenges that are put before them as their own.  They will do well, valuing themselves based on their performance in whatever career is placed before them—this choice also they will adopt as their own.  The other students, at least, will be trained to accept the imposition of external criteria.  The most important lesson we learn in school, the one single fact that without exception will follow us throughout our entire lives, no matter what job or economic role we end up in, is the compulsion of adhering to arrangements we had no part in making.  The ultimate answer to every child’s curious questioning is the simple, authoritative “Because.” No matter whether the question regards the color of the sky or why they have to go to bed or do their homework.  The conclusion of adulthood’s logic, that we are no more free to change our society than we are to change the way light refracts through the atmosphere producing the color blue, is that we are, simply, not free.


A protest outside the US embassy, calling for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Subbota, 17 Fevral’

A low-hanging sunlight slides through the window and paints the wall a hue of yellow as thick as butter, carves out shadows distinct and black as iron, and already fades to memory and second-guessing—no, surely “thick as butter” and “black as iron” are clumsily overdone even for such light, I think to myself, scratching my head, forgetting already how it looked.  The sun sets behind the hill of the Baikova cemetery where the crows in their hundreds spend all day in a treetop chorus, a single organism of a thousand beaks and a million midnight feathers that any minute now on some twilit cue will take to the sky, as it does every evening in a great wheeling whirlpool ritual that floods towards my window and rolls over the building, disappearing, in a stirring sort of death.  Tomorrow I leave Kyiv for points south and west.

These last weeks here winter has tantalized cruelly.  I came to Ukraina hoping for the strongest winter of my life, but it didn’t arrive until late January, two weeks of near solid snow and temperatures rather tamely approaching –10, the mid-teens in Fahrenheit.  Then a little bit of teasing, a few days of thaw, a few days of snow, each time leaving me to worry that a good honest winter would become a bygone experience, receding irrevocably into some mythologized Calvin and Hobbes past.

And beneath this bitter nostalgia, I’ve been tying up all my loose ends as haphazardly as might be expected for someone who never got the Boy Scouts badge for knotsmanship, quickly finishing, or getting just a little further along, pamphlets, stencils, group discussions, articles, translations, and other collaborations with the anarchists I’ve met and befriended these past months.

Soon enough I’m off, hoping that Odessa is as beautiful as I’ve heard, that Moldova will let me through their wee country without a visa so I can meet my contacts in Romania as scheduled, that distractions such as these will mask the sadness of leaving this place behind, and of going alone once more into a future that stays blank because no expectations could possibly describe it.