Back in the USSR!

I have never claimed to be the go-to person for "current events," but the other day I may have surpassed myself. I was chatting with a friend when she announced that she was thinking of taking a trip to Poland.

"Is that so?" I said politely, thinking dreamily of Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Szymborska, St. Maximilian Kolbe. "Now is Poland still part of Russia?"

"Part of . . . Russia?" she inquired.

"Yeah, you know. The U.S.S.R."

I could tell by the look on her face that I'd committed yet another mortifying gaffe. I'm used to such looks, having stopped watching TV sometime around the time "Mr. Ed" concluded its run. I'm used to hearing, say, "That was a drag about Elizabeth Edwards, hunh," and responding, "Who?" 

"You know," my friend will say, "John Edwards' wife?" 

"Now, is he a singer or what," I'll grope. "No, wait, he plays basketball?"

"Heather, he ran for Vice President. He cheated on her. While she had cancer! He . . . oh, forget it."

Anyway, imagine my surprise to consult Wikipedia and find that "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Russia for short, was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991."

Hey, in 1991 I'd just moved to L.A. and was looking for a job. I was busy that year. I knew something had been going on over there since Sputnik: Glasnost, Chernobyl, Gorbachev, and now, who, Putin, is that his name?

But no, seriously, I try to stay abreast. The problem is my brain tends to skip over everything that isn't some form of non-political human-interest story: bizarre crimes, medical mishaps, backwoods blues singers, obituaries. I'm always dutifully trying to memorize who's on what side in which war, but no sooner do I get things straight than the battle lines shift again. I can only get my mind around very clear concepts like light and darkness, good and evil, and even now, when I hear "Rwanda," I have to pause and call to mind the mnemonic device of "Hutu/hate" to remember which side was which.

The fact is, I feel very close to Russia. I've seen Andrei Rublev. I drank a ton of Popov vodka. I keep a whole file of Dostoevsky quotes. I can tell you where I was when I read War and Peace (on the island of Syros, Greece, wasted on retsina). I've practically memorized the passage where Ivan Ilych dies. I've pored over Chekhov's stories, plays and, especially, letters.

And I may not know what's going on now, but I totally knew they were in big, big trouble before. In fact, a few years ago I read a whole slew of amazing books by people who'd been in the prison camps: The Arctic Death Camps by Robert Conquest, Richard Würmbrand's Christ in the Communist PrisonsThe Accused by Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, Kolyma, and perhaps my favorite: The Woman Who Could Not Die by Julia de Beausobre. Upon learning that her husband Nicolay, imprisoned in another camp, had been shot, Beausobre wrote:

Look down right into the depths of your heart and tell me—Is it not right for you to be kind to [your torturers] Even to them? Particularly to them, perhaps? Is it not right that those men who have no kindness within them should get a surplus of it flowing towards them from without?