Maria's Field

Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

Oleg's Letter

Lioudmila,

What I'm going to write is meant for those Americans who know little about Russia. You, Lioudmila, of course know it all too well.

I was born in Sverdlovsk, in 1970. Before 1917 the city was called Yekaterinburg - named after Russian Empress Katherine the Great. But the Revolution brought the Red Terror and the city was renamed after Sverdlov, Lenin's companion-in-arms. He was the main initiator of the assassination of the Tsar and his family. Just imagine a phantasmagorical scenario as such: John Kennedy's murderer comes to power and Chicago is renamed to Oswald-City. For Russia the triumph of bloody absurdity became everyday reality. Human nature and the instinct of self-preservation forced Russians to adapt in horrid circumstances. And despite all that our grandmothers and grandfathers were still able to be happy and raise children.

I was born during the time when the totalitarian country ceased to be cannibalistic and became more like an old and sick elephant - gigantic and sulky USSR. 1970 marked the climax of stagnation and Cold War. Recently I found some newspapers from that era at my country house and I read them with much interest. My first impression was horror, but on the second thought I found them to be strangely interesting. They announced just two TV programs broadcasting from 5 to 11 PM endless Communist Party Committee sessions and so on. Now, that life seems to me like life on Mars but what strikes me is that I did live in that world!

Some American may say: poor Russians, just think what they had to live through, we feel so sorry for them. . . But I will say: don't rush to pity us, it is not as simple. I was growing during the drastic change of times - change from the decay of the empire to the birth of a new society.

I was 16 years old at the time of Perestroika. I remember well the stagnation (it was described in detail on Voice of America Radio) and Perestroika with all the horrors that its freedoms brought: crime, anarchy, chaos, times when one feared to walk the streets. Here's a rhetorical question: what is better - to live in peaceful times or be thrust into the whirlpool of historical events, when worlds and lives fall apart. Of course, I reason like an artist (it would be harder for a common man to agree) but what I know is that Russia is just the right place for a playwright - with shattering of fates, conflicts, crumbling of hopes, clashes of ideas - all that I've seen and experienced.

Russian life is like a rollercoaster- from Hell to Heaven and then right back. Not every nation can brag to have attempted to create the Earthly Paradise. In place of Jesus - Lenin, in place of God - Communism, Golgotha became Lenin's mausoleum. Life of individuals is quite another story. All these lives have been mutilated. In this lies the tragedy of Russia - we paid a huge price to show the other peoples of the worlds what road not to take. The life of my ancestors three generations back was broken and torn by wars and revolutions.

I know that Americans also experienced the Civil War and other cataclysms. But in Russia the scope of tragedy was incomprehensible and unbelievable to human reason: instead of the Great Depression we had Famine that took away millions of lives, the Civil War in Russia also took away millions and didn't end in reconciliation (evil won); the number of casualties during WWI and WWII doesn't fit into one's mind.

Just imagine that all across America churches are being burned down and priests are being murdered and every family has lost a son and a father; and there is no count to woes and disasters, one war is followed by still another war, and men perish and women raise children alone in the hope that their husbands would return some day; and children don't remember their fathers.

So why then do Russians love their Motherland? Why did I, for instance, experience nostalgia during my two years in Germany? Russia is an endless open space, you take a train ride and look out the window; and this contiguity mesmerizes and hypnotizes you. I don't think there is any other place in the world with such fresh morning air as in Russia when I was 7 years old. I remember walking to school and passing the club, heading toward school #71 - Lioudmila, do you remember those places? It was fall, puddles were frozen and I was late for school. Happiness is something unexplainable, and I was never happier than in my childhood years.

Now, looking back, I think that our life then looked wretched; but never since then and in no other place did I feel such complete happiness. I enjoyed freedom and nature, but all of that was gone as soon as mother and I moved into the city. Nabokov was right when he said: Childhood is Paradise Lost.

Why and how did I start writing? I was a common pimple-faced youngster until my life was shaken by two tragedies: death of my father and first love. The latter was stronger. First there were poems, then short stories, then I was into Tarkovsky and theatre, later I discovered the Great Russian Literature, went to study in St. Petersburg, worked in Sverdlovsk theaters as set designer and lighting designer, and then came a desire to become a playwright (Pinter's influence). All this happened in a short period of time between 16 and 23 years old. Those were abundant years and I still nourish myself from those times. Later I began working for Kolyada - he then was a popular playwright and very active. Later I met Slavkin, Galin, Rosov and Petrushevskaya but none of them shared their creative energy with the young as much as Kolyada did. He is a rare person and I believe that his role in Russian cultural life is yet to be recognized. I'm also not fast to share my energy with others - I'm an introvert.

Lioudmila, we'll talk about Compressorny [translator: small neighborhood in the outskirts of Yekaterinburg where Oleg grew up] some other time. For me it's like the gigantic Atlantis that disappeared along with childhood. Same kind of tragedy, just like Fellini's Amarcord.

Here is the chronology of my becoming acquainted with America when growing up: caricatures of Jimmy Carter in "Crocodile" [translator: a Russian satire comic magazine] - I just loved that magazine in my early childhood, a Jew neighbor in our communal flat who "betrayed the Motherland and left for America", the first pair of Levi's jeans, Dad's record of John Lennon " New York City", Voice of America Radio and Brodsky reading his poems "Don't leave your room, don't make that grave mistakeÉ", fearing a nuclear war after Chernenko's death, Elvis' record with a sign on it: American Folk Song, "Good Buy America" by Nautilus and finally, American dramaturgy and literature: O'Neil, Falkner, Miller, Salinger, Nabokov, Williams, movies: Kubrick, Allen, Coppola, and certainly "Some Like It Hot", which I saw in the "Iskra" Movie Theatre at the age of 16. America is a dream of Russian people for life free from the ever villainous power that mingles with the life of normal people.

America's fortune is that you are far away from Europe and the Old World that is tired of itself, tired of its culture and burdened by thousands of years. You are young and everything lies ahead. Americans are a new ethnos with a variety of cultures. Today the whole world is looking up to America, it's true.

America's misfortune - you helped materialize the Satan in the shape of an Atomic Bomb. There is more to it than a mere historic fact, it's a mystic phenomenon.

About the play:

Maria's Field. Where does this name come from? In Russia "Maria's Field" is a common name for a village, just like a name Ivanov is common in Russia or Smith in England. It was important for me to keep the name simple É

Very important: I was writing this play thinking about my grandmother Anfisa who waited for her husband to come back from war for seventy years but he never came back. The letter she received from the authorities said "Missing" but that didn't necessarily mean that he actually had died. It's painful to live without hope but it's a million times harder to live hoping for a miracle, that one day he will come back, alive and safe.

My grandmother was one of the million women who lost their husbands. She was a grain of sand in a desert of similarly tragic lives. The cost of husbands' heroism was a bullet that cut their lives short, while heroism of their wives was measured in their long lives, bitterness of loss, raising children alone, hardships of daily life and unending waiting. The fate of men was easier than the fate of women. It is harder to wait than to die.

Luda, such a story happened to my grandmother: when my grandfather was leaving to go to war he lied to her in order to save her tears. He didn't want to see her cry like the other women at the train station who were seeing their husbands off. He told her that he was just going to accompany the regiment to the front and would come straight back after a week. He died a month later. But she lived all her life waiting for him to return. Sasha promised to come back, she would say. The train station.., he left with the train and that was the last she saw of him. All her life she remembered every second of their saying good-by. This was a true story, which inspired me to write this play.

At home in the Urals I watch BBC-World. It's funny when the British channel shows the weather forecast in Russia. Their map only shows Moscow, outside of Moscow there is nothing. But it's outside of Moscow where Russia just begins. Grishka Rasputin - he's a Ural man, and not Siberian. Few know it though. The Urals is the area of the oldest mountains in the world, low rise but powerful. Kilimandgaro doesn't compare, even though our mountains settled to a thousand meters. The people here are gloomy, rugged but kind, right? My mother comes from Krasnoufimsk old believes and my dad - from the "blockade" children who were brought to the Urals from the sieged Leningrad. It's crazy how everything has mixed up.

Lioudmila, forgive me for throwing everything in one pile - I was in a hurry.

Oleg.

December 2008