Looking back at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes 20 years ago, what few witnessing that historic string of events would have ever imagined is that two decades later so many people would . . . almost seem to lament that they ever took place. Throughout the former Soviet Bloc and even Western Europe, this undemocratic past is now looked upon with something akin to whimsical mourning by many. East Germans speak of the culture and values stolen from them, Russians speak of the security and stability that they’ve been deprived and everyone speaks of capitalism’s hopelessly unfulfilled promises.
While this nostalgia for the Old Eastern Europe—or “Ostalgie” as it’s referred to in German—mostly finds harmless expression in a semi-ironic revival of Eastern European symbols and products ranging from the Trabi to CCCP t-shirts, it has also taken on more serious manifestations, as in the strong re-emergence of communist parties. What this longing for Soviet life underlines is the historical confusion that has played out since the fall of these regimes. Not just in former Soviet states but throughout Europe the clear divisions between one side and the other that defined the years of the Cold War seem to have become blurred beyond recognition. Who was right and who was wrong? Who were the good guys, who the bad? What has been lost and what gained? And anyway—what ever happened to the Soviets, their political and cultural figures, their innovations and monuments (from the utterly laughable to the genuinely impressive)?
If there is one figure who brings together these questions and stands for the perplexing ethos of the Soviet Bloc in all its ambiguity it can only be its last leader, now both celebrated and blamed for its downfall—Mikhail Gorbachev. It is precisely this inscrutable individual who stands at the center of the unconventional blog by the Austrian-Polish author Stanislaw Borokowski entitled Briefe an Michail Gorbatschow (“Letters to Mikhail Gorbachev”), a work that speaks to this East-West dichotomy at a time when it has become so poignantly revived.
Without a doubt the Letters are one of the most complex and humorous facets of Borokowski’s work, and in a way they are also his most accessible writing. While the blog would appear to be an elaborate farce, a kind of send-up of both its creator and the enigmatic political figure and his various post-Cold War manifestations (from singer and recording artist to Washington Post editorialist), Borokowski also uses this unconventional format to examine a variety of more or less serious issues, from world literature to communist history to his personal relationships. In the first entry Borokowski writes:
With all this talk about the New Life and David Hasselhoff, all this nostalgia for Ronald Reagan and the sweet hereafter, I thought to myself while pedaling to the public library the other day, It is what it is. And the great former statesman, whose strange territory was mapped out on his high brow—that so oft pondered, so oft mocked, so oft misunderstood omen—should know that.
Truly, Mr. Gorbachev, it is what it is.
But what does that mean?
and a few days later:
I’m not sure if you like metaphors. Yet when I speak of a bus full of children that breaks through the ice in order to enter into another kingdom, what I really mean is . . .—But that’s exactly the problem with metaphors. No sooner do you think of one, does it become far more profound and compelling than that for which it was supposed to stand.
Readers are left to wonder why Borokowski has chosen such a venue for these reflections and why they are addressed to the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In truth there are no clear answers. To some extent Gorbachev seem to represent a hero or mentor for Borokowski, both in the leader’s espousal of humanitarian solutions to international crises and in his late-found creative bent. For while the former Soviet premier has been an active champion of open political dialogue and environmental reform, he has also broadened his artistic horizons. His recent works include a recording of romantic songs for his deceased wife Raissa, as well as the narrative voice in Jean-Pascal Beintus’s 2004 production of Peter and the Wolf, for which he was awarded a Grammy. In reference to these unexpected facets of Gorbachev’s persona, Borokowski addresses him as a kind of brother-in-arms or even confidante with a special understanding of the writer’s personal struggles (including his romantic encounters and confusion):
. . . To love this girl, Mr. Gorbachev, would be like placing a smooth, round stone from a dried up riverbed onto your tongue for no good reason. . . . Yet I did not place this stone on my tongue. Love was never anything like that for me. Until now for me love has only been theoretical and inexplicable, even if I can be said to have had certain experiences with it.
There is a wistful tone to the blog entries that refer directly or indirectly to the Soviet past, which has everything to do with the phenomenon of Ostalgie and which again the reader isn’t sure what to make of. Is this petulant irony or is Borokowski sincerely nostalgic for an age (just two decades ago!) when the world order seemed so much more simple and for that less daunting, despite its inherent dangers? In describing a trip to the beach Borokowski writes:
If you had seen how the people packed themselves onto this little stretch of shadeless gravel, turned peacefully over on their sides so that even more people could press in . . . If you had seen with what joyful primitiveness they amused themselves, smearing each other from head to foot with mud, diving into the water from a rocky outcrop (oh how patiently waiting their turn!) . . . If you could have seen these things your eyes would have lit up with joy and of themselves your lips would have uttered that heavenly mantra—Communism!
The revisionist image of the communist legacy extends to Gorbachev as well, and the father of glasnost and perestroika becomes not only a model of humaneness, but even a kind of a guru, to whom all manner of questions might be addressed:
Dear Mr. Gorbachev,
Why do dogs run away from their owners? We here, as you probably know, attribute a lot of strange emotions and telepathies to this species, but do we ever think of the kind of prolonged impassioned resentment that must reside in the heart of a creature like my childhood pet, the bitch Snoopy, who bolted out the front door at any opportunity, only ever to return because she was too small and stupid to make it very far and because one of the neighbors—all of whom had grown uncannily unaffected by the sight of her running with such random abandon through their backyards—always brought her back? There are mysteries, Mr. Gorbachev, which we seem singularly unequipped to unravel.
As the blog, which has usually been updated every few days for well over a year, rambles onwards it addresses more themes and assumes the most diverse forms, from comic anecdote to sociological commentary, though it somehow always returns to its central figure.
If a single theme can be said to tie the work together it may be that of human alienation in the post-Soviet world, in its broader manifestations and as experienced individually by the author. More recently Borokowski writes:
The other day a soft-spoken Virginian knocked on my door to ask me if i was planning on moving out any time soon. No hello or anything—just that question. I stood in the doorway in my underwear and told him about some of my plans for the future before he returned to wherever he came from, seemingly somewhat dejected.
It’s the promises, Mr. Gorbachev, that were never made that cause the most pain when they go unfulfilled.—I thought a friend would call me when I arrived in the city again after a long absence. Two months later I still haven’t heard a word. He wasn’t a very good friend. What was I expecting? What exactly was I expecting?
This theme of alienation is tied back into the figure of Gorbachev as well, or at least into the writer’s somewhat arbitrary projections of him:
Sometimes I think you must be very lonely. Scorned by the old vanguard who look down on you from all those old iron statues; mocked by the liberated as an insignificant marionette, an inflated con-man who tried pawning off bad copies (Perestroika! Glasnost!) when the real thing was soon to be had dirt cheap (though the real thing proved the far greater deception), you are an anachronistic mystery. And yet you too were among the chosen. We know the sign, though upon that too scorn and ridicule have been heaped so high. Verily, Mr. Gorbachev, when it’s all said and done I believe you shall be counted among those who inherit the earth. Or at least whatever’s left of it.
In truth, here and throughout the blog Borokowski seems to use Gorbachev—the past over which he looms so large and the present and future to which he has also contributed so much—as a rhetorical figure to grapple with certain questions, often the questions of life and death itself and the nature of our new existence. This existential strain emerges most often in the shorter entries:
What is death this late September morning when the auroras of autumn linger in the alleys and the sky looks like it’s just been cleansed with Clorox?
Let the morning become itself. Forget about the deceivers and all their bizarre hang-ups. Forget about the new plague. Let the soul live on in this Coney Island-like light—bright, nostalgic and meretricious.
or even more poignantly:
Do you ever feel like you’d like to see into the heart of everyone with a special, stigmatizing vision, even while remaining anonymously in the fold, undistinguished? It’s stupid—first because we will never more than darkly grasp at the workings of the collective heart, second because no one is anonymous in the fold, everyone just somewhere out there.
In entries like these Borokowski’s ironic humor almost seems to fail him as he confronts phenomena in and outside him that he is unable to make sense of, though the author usually regains his casual humor:
The thing is, Mr. Gorbachev –this is what the lady at the garden store told me—YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PLANT TREES IN THE FOREST.
Other kinds of glimpses into the blogger’s interests and perceptions are also afforded, such as his vision of poetry (which he considers the heart of his own writing). In another entry he provides humorous insight into his approach and attitudes towards the genre:
This evening, Mr. Gorbachev, I’d like to share with you some of my ideas about poetry, though I greatly fear you will find everything I have to say about this strange, outdated genre ridiculous.
In truth poetry isn’t one thing and it isn’t another. Take the French. For Rimbaud it was an obsession and an insanity—he said poetry was destroying him and we must believe him. Baudelaire spent a lot of time with prostitutes. Verlaine spent a lot of time in prison, as did Jean Genet. Genet also masturbated a lot and his mentor Sartre posited that poetry was closely related to this most shameful act. I would rather not get into your Russians—suffice it to say that they were a kind of suicide circus, so that when they weren’t writing poetry they were thinking of ways to kill themselves, and in fact often combined these activities by writing poems about the different ways of killing themselves. . . . As far as way over there on the other side—let’s just leave it at that Jack Henry Abbot was a homicidal maniac.
Nowadays it’s much different, though back then it was probably different too. Having come to believe it is almost no longer possible to write poetry (the word itself is so archaic, so obsolete!), I now write these notes to you.
What about you?
Here as much is revealed of the blogger as of the addressee of the Letters, and this is often the case. Yet while the entries open new horizons onto both the enigmatic Gorbachev and the Polish-Austrian writer, what may be most compelling to its readers (in German-speaking countries the blog has attained something like cult status) are Borokowski’s sometimes amusing, sometimes pained attempts to come to terms with a blurred past, shaky present and unfathomable future in which he, Gorbachev and seemingly all of us hardly seem to have a certain or secure place.
Chris Michalski’s poetry and translations have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies, and other publications.
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