The news out of Russia never seems to be new. The names change, not the essence. Nor does the reaction of Russia-watchers: a deep, hopeless, wordless sigh. As if to say: What's to be said? Ah, Russia!
Like its seasons, Russia's prospects go from drab to drabber, interrupted only by brief periods of false hope. Russia veers from despotism to autocracy and back again, but no further. Glasnost and Perestroika, openness and reconstruction, are proclaimed from time to time, but they always end the same way: in repression.
This tragedy is restaged again and again. The cast may be different, but the script stays the same. And the ending is never a happy one. The only question, as with Russia's weather, is which will be more crushing -- the freeze or the thaw.
The more Russia changes, the more it stays Russia, more's the pity. Tsar becomes commissar, but what difference does it make? The official name of the secret police changes: Okhrana, Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, FSB . . . but the police state remains.
It's as if the Russian Revolution had become stuck in just one phase of the French Revolution, that model for all modern revolutions: the Reign of Terror. The terror might wax and wane, but it never goes away.
Ah, Russia! Ah, family stories. Russians white and red, czarist and Bolshevik, swept through my mother's little village in Poland -- her shtetl -- during the First World War, which went on years longer in Poland than on the Western front. She would awake every morning not knowing which troops had arrived like a swarm of locusts the night before -- Russians of one bloody persuasion or another, correct German regulars or roaming freebooters (Freikorps), Cossacks, sometimes even Poles. They washed over the village of Mordt like muddy waters.
Her father, my grandfather, had died during the war. Her eldest brother Avrom, disappeared post-war after formal hostilities had ceased. Half a century later, safe in America, she couldn't believe it when she heard that the Russians had launched a spacecraft and were headed for the moon. ("What? They couldn't even find their way around Mordt!") The only tsar she ever really knew was His Imperial Majesty Chaos.
By the time my mother made it to America, a 19-year-old girl traveling alone in steerage, she would be illiterate in three languages, knowing just enough German, Russian and Polish to help her survive. And she would step off the boat hungry to learn this strange, unphonetic language called English. Years later I would bring my little blue speller home from school every day so we could learn the words together. She was still studying.