|The author and his father, Alexander Arkadyevich Genis.|
My father lasted 79 years, five years longer than the life of the Soviet system.
“My five-year plan,” he would have joked, because even in America he remained imbued with his native concepts. For him, “native” meant the U.S.S.R.
Now, when neither he nor the system exists, I ask myself why they turned out to be inseparable to the end. Father hated the Soviet system and yet he owed everything to it – everything in his life that was good and everything that was bad. He spent his old age trying to separate one from the other, the good from the bad, the system from the man.
A soldier on an invisible front, my father, Alexander Arkadyevich Genis, spent half a century fighting a country that he came to love in his old age. He could not accept the death of a state from which he never expected anything good. Perhaps he was right in this: In a book by a Moscow philosopher, I once found the following observation: “It has been said that the U.S.S.R. passed away. Nonsense. The subconscious never dies.” And if the subconscious is the indissoluble residue of history, it is what ties us all together. Father embodied this proposition.
During the process of emigration, we finally are able to glance back at the map from a distance. The Soviet Union’s disintegration had a traumatic effect upon father: he couldn’t stand for that map to change. father had always preached large-scale, geographic patriotism. He loved to travel, too, and had dreamed of the West like a Muslim dreams of Paradise or a Jew dreams of the Messiah: the West was our Everest. While still in the U.S.S.R., having settled at the westernmost edge of his country, father took planes everywhere he was allowed to fly.
But, from Riga, in essence, all roads led to the East. As a professor of civic aviation, father visited every airport in the country. He knew Magadan and Kushka, and remembered every good meal he had in any city. An experienced citizen of his dangerous country, father felt at home in every single part of it. The Soviet territory, one sixth of the globe’s land mass, lay before him like a flat bed sheet, without a single wrinkle.
It was his sacred belief that the entire Soviet nation was held together by powerful anti-Soviet sentiments. Having grasped the perverse nature of the regime, father knew all of its distortions and how to use them. He knew not to confuse individuals with principles. Of the latter, he had none, and he belonged to no political party. Knowing that the system attacks its own faithful first, father forbade me to join the Young Communist League; this didn’t hurt us, but didn’t help us, either. You could never win with the Soviet system. In the end, it would even defeat itself.
Three times history destroyed father’s life, from top to bottom. Like in a fairy tale, where everything happens three times. The first time, his world was destroyed by the Germans. At 14, he was evacuated together with some Gypsies. (When I was little, both he and I were often mistaken for Gypsies.) Taking into account the situation, he took “War and Peace” on the journey. The classic would prove useful. In Gypsy caravans, few people ever read Tolstoy; as they journeyed in the wider world, strangers would be touched, and give him bread.
The second time was more difficult. Father was working on the first early warning radar system in Ryazan. He believed it to be a safeguard of peace and he worked seven days a week, flew with test pilots, and got paid so much he needed to bring along a briefcase on payday. He was the first man in town to own a Pobeda motorcar. He reached the pinnacle of success by the time he was 30. Emulating [the Soviet premier, Nikita S.] Khrushchev, father expressed his opinion of Stalin’s personality cult. It was then that he crashed back to earth.
The third time was after we settled in Riga. There, father had started over as a political nonentity, rebuilt his life, became an outcast once more when he defended a close friend seeking political asylum in Britain, and was kicked out of his Institute. Twenty years later, the minutes of the nasty meeting where father was questioned miraculously arrived in the United States. Reading them, I discovered that he had behaved with impeccable decency, speaking up on behalf of his friend. It was all the more surprising since he used to quote Epicurus to me: “Live without drawing attention to yourself,” he would say, and then elaborate further, the better to drive the message home: “The most important thing is not to stick your neck out.”
Naturally, he was unable to convince either me or himself. Nevertheless, he was never a dissident. He was a complicated man, much like every other in that convoluted country. He was a Soviet man. Knowing full well whose fault it all was, he didn’t allow the regime to destroy him, and whenever it nevertheless threatened to, father behaved like a marooned Polar explorer: he waited for spring to come while engaging in some interesting activity. When he lost his job, he learned to make books out of heretical pages torn from journals and magazines from the time of Khrushchev’s thaw.
Father wanted freedom more than anything else, with an ardent indifference to what form it took. At one point, he mistook it for the ability to read what is forbidden. He didn’t care whether that was Trotsky, Playboy, or Avtorkhanov. He learned English in order to subscribe to the Daily Worker, the newspaper published by supposed British communists. Censorship imbued his life with meaning. Getting around it became his hobby. I was raised reading good books because, in essence, they were hard to find. Seeing books as a fetish of freedom, father respected them.
“The thing about Russia is that you should never hold a grudge,” he would say to me years later. “But only if now you live on Long Island,” I would reply sarcastically, but to no avail. Father took genuine offense on behalf of the state. He was angry with the Latvians, with the Ukrainians, even with the Jews. He considered Stalin a villain, Khrushchev a fool, [his successor, Leonid] Brezhnev a nonentity and [the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris] Yeltsin a drunk. But, unexpectedly, he fell in love with Russia’s current strongman, hoping that [the Federation’s former and soon-to-be again president, Vladimir] Putin would restore the old contours of the map.
As he grew older, father unwittingly tried to compensate for his increasing weakness with others’ strength. He missed a Motherland – the one with the epaulets, the jackboots, and the rockets. This doesn’t mean he approved of the Communists. Instead, he was drawn to Czar Alexander III, who, like father, believed that Russia had only two allies – its Army and its Navy. Obviously, father didn’t wish for war. He wanted everyone to know their place and to stick to it even in a collapsed empire. Nostalgia for fear – and greatness – filled his emptying soul.
“What would have happened if Americans had come to liberate the Soviet Union from Brezhnev, as they came to Iraq to free it from Saddam?” I kept questioning father like a Jesuit.
“We would have fought to the last drop of our blood.”
“It’s a good question.”
He had become an ardent patriot of both countries his life had straddled. When their interests conflicted, he never felt any confusion. I didn’t either, but because I stubbornly distrusted the old country just as much as I distrusted my “new” Motherland – as it is mystifyingly termed in immigrant periodicals. It was only in America that my father and I began quarrelling. Perhaps I went too far when I claimed that all those who had lived under Stalin ought to be stripped of their right to vote in the U.S.
“A totalitarian regime stays in the soul like strontium in the bones,” was my argument.
“You know,” father would say to me, tired of our arguments, “It was a mistake to think that we lived in the U.S.S.R. The U.S.S.R. lives on inside us.”