Ah, Russia! There are a million words to describe it, yet none. The latest Nobel laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich, boils down the mystery that is Russia into this one big question: "Why doesn't people's suffering translate into freedom?"
It is too big a question to answer in this small space, but not too big to address. Which is just what she does. In the end, she puts her finger on the key to the puzzle, and why we Westerners miss it: When we demonize Vladimir Putin, we "do not understand that there is a collective Putin, consisting of some millions of people who do not want to be humiliated by the West. There is a little piece of Putin in everyone."
Don't get her wrong. She's no fan of Comrade, Tsar and President-for-Life Putin. But she understands that a "totalitarian power is mainly busy in keeping itself alive." It's a full-time occupation and preoccupation. Yet she avoids easy generalities and sticks with a montage of life -- and death -- in Mother Russia. "I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts and words. ... I'm interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains."
Ah, yes. The everyday life of the soul. How often do you hear that phrase these days or any days? Or as one of the Russians she interviewed for her book put it, "Russians don't just want to live; they want to live for something." Like everybody else. Lest we forget, one in four Belarussians died in the Second World War.
Yet this historian of the soul can crack wise, too. She says she was never afraid to die for her country but hated having to wear men's undergarments as part of her uniform. "We were prepared to die for the Motherland, but not in those underpants."
Has she ever considered just writing fiction? No, she replies. "Life is much more interesting." And indeed it is. The Bear That Walks like a Man, to quote Kipling, turns out to have tender feelings -- and intense rages. One swipe of those claws, or a suffocating bear hug, and all could be over. Svetlana Alexievich knows her zoology, especially the chapter on our ursine cousins. And that they're no creature to take lightly.
Lovable as they may appear in the comics, grizzlies can be fearsome up close and all too personal, as one hiker after another in the national forests has discovered much to his regret. If he lived to tell the cautionary tale, it was, literally, a grisly one. They don't call 'em Ursus horribilis in the textbooks for nothin'. Let's just say they are not to be trifled with. Any more than Russians great or small, white or red, Belarussians or Siberians are.
It's all there in their ursine genetic code, as the best teacher I ever had, Dr. Mary Warters of Centenary College of Louisiana, well knew and tried to teach the rest of us. There's no arguing with zoology. It will tolerate studying but not ignoring it. And he who does so does it at his own deadly peril.
Life may be full of surprises, but this ain't one of 'em, thank you very much. Cuddly as the cartoon images we all carry around in our heads may be, they're only cartoons, not the real thing. For life is real, life is earnest, and there's no sense trying to cheat it. You'll lose every time. Leave all that to the funny pages, which aren't funny at all when you encounter Nature red in tooth and claw. It will abide no clever compromises or easy ways out. And beware: Nobody leaves this life alive.