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How The Loss Of Empire Made Me Young Again

  • Igor Pomeranzev

"I think that was the moment the thought first hit me that the Soviet myth of the empire as a "friendship of different peoples" was a farce, and that the Soviet Union would not last long."

"I think that was the moment the thought first hit me that the Soviet myth of the empire as a "friendship of different peoples" was a farce, and that the Soviet Union would not last long."

I was 5 years old when my parents took me from Lake Baikal in Siberia to Chernovtsy in western Ukraine. The whole family went: mother, father, my older brother Valentin, and me.

In Chernovtsy, aged 5, I was the younger brother, but because I was an emissary of imperialist Russia in colonial Ukraine, I became an older brother to old Hutsul (Carpathian Ukrainian) men with gray beards and Hutsul grandmothers with sagging breasts. It made me feel good.

As I grew up, I was a model older brother: I sympathized with the younger ones. I didn't look down on them, and I even took an imperial interest in learning their language. It was when I was about 18 that I realized I no longer wanted to play this game, or to count myself among the infinite millions of Russians who, without a trace of irony, called themselves a "great nation."

In 1965, almost at my first lecture as an undergraduate at Chernovtsy University, I understood precisely why. The professor teaching the "History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union" asked us what language we wanted him to use -- Russian or Ukrainian.

There were about 60 students. The 50 or so Ukrainians among us said nothing. But 10 older brothers chorused: "In Russian!" I think that was the moment the thought first hit me that the Soviet myth of the empire as a "friendship of different peoples" was a farce, and that the Soviet Union would not last long.

A Younger Brother Once Again

I was wrong. It kept going for what seemed to be an interminably long time: not in terms of historical time, but in terms of a single person and his one and only lifetime. But in the end it came crashing down, flushed down the historical tubes, gone to hell with all the concomitant chthonic horrors.

By now I was in England and obtaining invaluable lessons in the national and colonial sobering-up process. But right up to my departure from the USSR, I was trapped in the older-brother routine. I felt this even when being interrogated by the KGB: they belittled me, mocked my literary ambitions, but they didn't smash my face in and then lock me away in a loony bin or grind me into the dust of a labor camp, like they did with my colonized and more vulnerable younger brothers.

Meanwhile, in England, I shed years all of a sudden and became a younger brother again in the literal sense: a younger brother to Valentin.

In November 2008, I went to Vienna for some Days of Ukrainian Literature. Along with a Romanian and an Austrian, I had been invited as a Russian writer with a Ukrainian connection. I spoke alongside half a dozen Ukrainian writers and poets.

I felt at ease: I liked playing the part of a national minority. I liked the sense of humor shown by Clio, muse of history. Thanks to her irony, at age 60 I felt a boy again, the same lad who once upon a time was growing up in Siberia and loved his mother, father, and older brother, Valentin.

Igor Pomerantsev is a Russian writer and poet who has worked for more than 20 years as a broadcaster with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary, which was translated from Russian by Frank Williams, are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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