ne of the saddest things about graduating college is the loss of possession: the loss of the dormitories lit up at night, the loss of the paths through the lawn, the tennis courts, the library books, and the classroom desks, which maybe you never particularly liked while they were yours, but now that they’re not. . .
As a college student with a student ID and a class schedule the whole teeming, beautiful campus is yours to do with as you please. You can be bored with it, or you can be thrilled with it. The important thing is that it’s yours.
From that place of possession a little over a year ago I looked out at the future, contemplating my impending banishment from the kingdom, and decided that it was time for a 180-degree switch. “I’ll never have this much fun again, so why make light-hearted happiness my aim?” I thought. This is how I came to Russia.
There’s no denying that there is something sad about Russian culture. You could blame the Soviet Union, or the failure of the Soviet Union. Neither are exactly bundles of joy. But as far as sadness as an aesthetic quality of the culture goes, that must date back much, much further.
A Russian Orthodox church seems, to someone entering one for the first time, like a monument to suffering. Contrary to popular belief, it’s the icons, and not the onion domes that really make a Russian Orthodox Church. And the icons. . . well, one friend calls them “six-pack foreheads.” As in the foreheads of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist and St. Peter are so wrenched with pain that they look like very defined abdominal muscles. And their eyes are as deep as water, and their bodies are so frail and so undernourished they look like they could collapse at any minute and fall right out of their gold frames. With the help of beautiful, but cripplingly-sad icons, the Russian Orthodox church taught for centuries that suffering without protest –with complete resignation– was the path to heaven. For example, their most famous saints, the brothers Boris and Gleb, knew that their other brothers wanted to kill them. And they went right on and let it happen. This took place in Kiev around AD 990.
To me, the atmosphere of the Russian Orthodox Church (which I suspect has dyed in the wool, rather than just tinged Russia) is beautiful, but alien. Because somewhere in the past my personal cultural heritage and the basic idea that life and the world aren’t simply dens of pain intertwined. From whence did this idea come? America, more than symbolically, allows people to escape the past. Ireland already in the Braveheart days was known as a “merry” place. And the religion I’ve inherited, Roman Catholicism, even in the plague-ridden Middle Ages, was, I think, a fundamentally happy thing. There’s that famous smiling angel at cathedral at Reims (circa AD 1275). You won’t find that kind of smile on an Orthodox icon.
So why has one culture chosen to embrace sadness, when others have done well enough simply acknowledging it? An equally mystifying question would be, why do bad things happen? I can’t answer either, probably no one can, but I can tell you that when a tragedy does happen, there is almost something in the air of my large, industrial, gray Siberian city that seems to accept it in a way that my sunny Florida hometown wouldn’t.
The last time I went to an orthodox church was Easter night. Ludmila Pavlovna, the old woman who watches over the mothers’ shelter (where I work and live) at night invited me and some of the mothers to take part in the Easter procession. Fifteen minutes to midnight, she rounded up Tanya, Olya, Natasha, and me, put candles in our hands, kerchiefs on our heads, and made Tanya, Olya and Natasha extinguish their cigarettes. We headed across the street to the church. “The service is very purifying,” Ludmila told Olya, “so don’t even think about sinning tomorrow.”
All of the congregation had gathered outside. We walked together once around the church. Orthodox priests, holding the church’s icons, lead the procession. The latent Russian Orthodox believers came out in Olya, Tanya, and Natasha and when it came time for it, they bowed deeply and crossed themselves over and over and over. It was a beautiful scene: the light of a hundred candles reflecting off of the gold of the icons and the Ob river just barely visible through a birch grove. I would have stayed longer if Ludmila hadn’t tugged me back with her. Natasha came with us, while Olya and Tanya moved a bit away from the church to continue their smoking. We had just reached the gate when we heard a sound like a bomb. But it wasn’t a bomb. It was a seventeen-year-old boy who, drunk out of his mind, had stolen a car, and ran down two of the people outside of the church. Natasha sprinted back to check on Tanya and Olya, who besides seeing a young man and young woman crumpled to death, were fine.
Later that night Tanya told me that at the time the ambulance arrived, the girl was still breathing. All the next day, I hoped that she lived. But on my way home, passing the church, I saw two large piles of red roses.
That was an isolated incident, and it could have happened anywhere. Regrettable, extremely sad, but ultimately unavoidable. It was the smaller, everyday tragedies that after the crash really got to me. Like old women in the grocery store buying vodka, just vodka, so that they could drink themselves to oblivion. Or the pure gnarliness of prostitutes. Or the streets littered with condoms, beer cans, and syringes. On one walk through the park with the orphans from the orphanage Tolya, a three-year-old picked up a syringe and said “Look! I’m a doctor!” His mom takes drugs. That’s why he’s with us in the first place.
Throughout this past year in Novosibirsk, I’ve often felt like the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet that starts with “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why/ I have forgotten,” particularly the lines: “I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more.”
“She was supposed to have been crazy in college,” the editor of this magazine told me once about St. Vincent Millay.
Like St. Vincent, I’ve asked myself many times after college why my boughs are so silent now. I believe she was referring to lovers. I’m simply referring to general energy, vivacity, fun, and the like. And then I remember: “Duh! I chose this!” Likewise, the organization I work for chose to set up shop in a poor, sad, dirty place (a place that so easily accepts tragedies) so that the poor, and the sad, and the marginalized could come to them. And every day I see my coworkers helping the poor, the sad, and the marginalized — the elderly, the handicapped, the addicted, and so on and so forth — and that, though not particularly light-hearted, is a very happy thing.
Read Franny’s first installment detailing daily life in a Russian orphanage here.
Read Franny’s second installment, consisting of musings on the city of Novosibirsk, here.
Read Franny’s third installment about immigrant girls here.
Read Franny’s fourth installment about attempting to escape a Russian hospital here.
Read Franny’s fifth installment on sadness here.