Russians are locked up again, but this time from outside. And then?

After the discussion about censorship of Russian culture, there are now voices for the accomplice Russians to be denied visas for Europe. The poet Lev Rubinstein, frequent guest at Poetry International, remembers all too well what the isolation of the Soviet years meant for Russians. A Russian was ‘exitable’ or ‘non-exit’. It didn’t solve anything and it always hit the wrong people, he writes for Republic.

by means of Lev Rubinstein

Everyone is talking these days about the rather nervous and not too balanced initiatives of various more or less official characters from the civilized world. These initiatives can be summarized briefly in the phrase – which is completely understandable, for that matter: ‘Russian citizens have no business in Western foreign countries’. Let those citizens sit at home, because in the eyes of the western world each of them is somehow associated with the government of the state, whose citizens they are.

That is a rather weak position and I am sure it will be corrected in some way soon. But I repeat, however logically unstable that position may be, psychologically it is, if not justified, at least understandable.

Not so long ago, another theme dominated the debate, no less vehement and just as leaning towards the philosophy, practice and poetics of the absurd: the theme of the need for a symbolic, if not literal, abolition of Russian culture, which, in all its manifestations and examples, carried within itself the potential of an original, eternal and ineradicable imperialism.

In my consciousness, those two themes merged, when I remembered that the person, who tacitly embodies that same Russian culture, that is, the main national genius of our homeland, [de dichter Poesjkin- noot vertaler] was not allowed to leave his country.

Exitable or non-exitable

That word also existed in Soviet times: nevyjezdnoj (non-exit – adjective meaning someone had no right to leave the country – translator’s note]. Consequently, the word also existed vyjezdnoj (exitable). Yes, the population of the country was then divided into those two categories, which were, to put it weakly, totally unequal.

‘Exitable’, of course, were diplomats and their families. And also employees of various foreign trade organizations. And also some performers from some theaters. In addition to some musicians from certain orchestras. As well as some other characters.

I remember an interview with film director Sergei Mikhalkov from the late 1970s [dichter van maar liefst drie verschillende politiek-correcte versies van het volkslied van Sovjet-Unie respectievelijk Rusland – noot vertaler]. Chatting about his family, he said, “My boys were struck by their curiosity from an early age. They traveled now to France, now to England or Italy. They got to know the world, so to speak’.

The rest of the population – and that was the vast majority – was forced to get to know the world mainly from books, from ‘cropped’ Western films or from travel programs on television. I remember how long the phrase of one of those programmers kept running through my mind: “Sydney greeted us with a torrential rain.”

For my generation and for my environment, abroad was a semi-mythical phenomenon. We knew there had to be some kind of ‘West’ somewhere. For us, that was partly a fabrication, a utopia. That it even existed led us to metaphysical doubt.

It reminded us of its existence only through the rare visits of foreign friends to Moscow, and also through the occasional proofs of its authenticity in the form of books, records and packets of Marlboro.

Emigration as the only option

For me and people of my milieu, that is to say for the totally ‘non-travellers’, there has been only one solution to this problem since the early 1970s: emigration. [vanaf de jaren 70 was het Russische Joden in principe toegestaan naar Israel te emigreren maar emigratie aanvragen werd half als landverraad beschouwd en kon op tal van onduidelijke gronden worden afgewezen, waarna de aanvrager een smet voor het leven had en zijn carrière kon vergeten – noot vertaler].

Key concepts in this became words such as ‘he has applied for emigration’, ‘called on the carpet’, ‘he is in denial’, ‘getting status’. The verb ‘to go’, used without any addition, was narrowed down to a single meaning in everyday parlance, just like the word ‘sit’ [bedoeld werd ‘niet mogen emigreren’ – noot vertaler]. Farewell parties for leavers, whose numbers grew in the 1980s, were parties to the afterlife, mourning gatherings for the living. We were sure we would never see each other again.

But when the people we had said goodbye to for good suddenly began to reappear in Moscow alive and laughing, you wanted to touch them all the time – it was so unlikely. It was like in a movie. But as soon as we got used to that miracle, something far more improbable happened: we were also able to move ourselves.

I first left my homeland when I was 42 years old and ended up not just anywhere, but directly in London! I think my feelings were similar to the sensations of a deep-sea fish landing on the shore.

And then, as it is called, one thing led to another.

The most important discovery was that with a closer acquaintance, that foreign country was not the paradise we had made of it in our imagination. People did not fly through the air, but walked on the earth just like us. I remember the shock of seeing a young girl weeping bitterly in the middle of one of Stockholm’s lively streets. ‘People suffer here too!’ – it flashed through me.

Abroad turned out not to be a paradise but just another circle of hell.


I have been extremely lucky – my odyssey began in the late 1980s, in the years of the ubiquitous ‘Gorbimania’, when Russian man was received with cheers in the West, as a hero, a suffering man, a super sympathetic exotic creature, who you immediately had to gift a jacket, an old suitcase and a piece of baguette with bacon.

During Gorbimania, the Russian was received with cheers in the West as a hero and suffering man…

But pretty quickly that super-lovable creature took a good look around, smelled everything, came to his senses, straightened his stubborn shoulders, and turned into an infernal monster in the eyes of the Westerner with a briefcase full of dollars in one and the pin of another. grenade in the other hand.

And what in our day the statistical average Russian represents in the eyes of the statistical average citizen of the West, especially of the ‘near West’, we can imagine, if we look at the savage mentioned at the beginning of this article. initiatives.

Peter the Great’s famous “window to Europe” opened and then closed, depending on the historical or political climate.

Until recently it was opened or closed from this side. But now it threatens to be closed from the other side as well, and so the ‘non-exit bars’ become ‘non-entry bars’.

…but soon he turned into an infernal monster with a briefcase full of dollars in one hand and a grenade in the other

We live in a place and in a time where anything is possible. Like one of the characters of [de satiricus] Mikhail Zoshchenko said: “I have been observing our country for many years and I know what I am afraid of.”

What does this mean? Are we going to bring up again that our national genius [Poesjkin] never been abroad? Do we rejoice at this fact of his biography, as we also displayed our glee in the deaf and blind times of yore? Are we going to remember again that containment destroys the imagination or, as in the case of our genius, stimulates it?

Whatever. And then how?

This comment appeared on the Russian website Republic.

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