Alex Shoumatoff and the Russian soul
By Emily Havener
A Yakutian berry picker sits with /Alex Shoumatoff in Siberia. Photo courtesy of Alex Shoumatoff.
“I am returning to my ancestral homeland at an interesting moment. Or perhaps I should say intense. But Russia is always intense. So let’s just say tense. The all-too-familiar sense that something monumental and horrible is about to happen again, some major new tectonic shift in the unstable political plates in this part of the world.”
So Alex Shoumatoff opens his unedited piece, originally for Vanity Fair, on his return to Russia in 2015, following the annexation of Crimea. Alex is a literary and environmental journalist who has written for the New Yorker and numerous other publications, a founding editor of Outside magazine and Conde Nast Traveler — and he will be the subject of a longer interview on his travels and environmental journalism in our upcoming summer edition of the Charleston Mercury Magazine.
Meanwhile, I sat down with Alex to discuss his perspective on the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine based on his time spent there and his own Russian heritage: He is the author of Russian Blood, an investigation into his White Russian aristocratic roots. Below follows an edited version of our discussion.
Emily: In “The Secret of the Russian Soul,” which you wrote in 2015, you said, “Nobody imagined Putin would so brazenly flout the rules of modern international conduct, any more than anyone in the industry of Soviet watchers in my boomer generation foresaw the implosion of the USSR in l991. America doesn’t get Russia. It’s like water and oil, dogs and cats. … Several people tell me it isn’t the USSR that Putin is trying to re-create, even though he has famously characterized its collapse as ‘the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.’ He wants to be tsar.” Talk to me about this in the context of the current-day crisis in Ukraine.
Alex: [In] Russia, it’s very dangerous to go against the illusion that the government, or Putin in other words, is peddling and forcing on everybody. There is some really horrible stuff going on there that also happened in Chechnya. This is the way the way the Russian state has operated since Genghis Khan.
Emily: So that is in itself part of the Russian history you talk about and that ostensibly Putin is talking about, restoring the glory of the Russian culture — that was part of it as well and has been for a long time.
Alex: Well, the glory of Russian culture was largely destroyed in 1917. After the fall of the USSR, all of these fabulous icons from the churches and cathedrals all over Russia have resurfaced. Russia and Ukraine are kind of joined at the hip. Russia started in Kyiv, you know. And during the czar’s period, Ukraine was called “little Russia.” But there are these real Ukrainians. I descend from the first, oldest Russian family on record who welcomed the Viking Rurik who came sailing up the Volkoff River in 832, and they built Novgorod. That was the first city, the beginning of Russia. And then the grandson of Rurik the Viking did Kyiv.
I also have, on quite a few sides, these Ukrainian Cossack roots, and I just found out that I seem to be the illegitimate third-great grandson of my favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol.
Emily: Well, then you come by your writing legacy naturally.
Alex: When I was 16, I was holed up in my aunt’s apartment on spring vacation in 1963 or 4, with all of the great Russian books, right? So I’m reading Dead Souls, Gogol’s fabulous novel, and he describes this old peasant couple in Ukraine sitting in front of their fireplace in their living room in their hut: “And all at once for no apparent reason, she would put down her knitting and he would put down the book that he was reading, and they would implant upon each other’s lips a kiss so prolonged and languishing that his small cigar might easily have been smoked while it lasted.” Actually that paragraph, which I can still quote 60 years later, is what made me want to be a writer. If you read this Gogol stuff, he’s hilariously satirical, but in his early writing he also writes loving portrayals of the actual Ukraine, which was distinct. The Ukrainians, by the way, are a mixture of at least 20 different ethnic groups, especially the indigenous Cossacks.
Emily: Well, that whole area has changed so much just since I was a child. But it’s something that’s, I think, so far from the American ken, and you say that you want to give Americans an idea of where both Russians and Ukrainians are coming from. You write, “I want people to come and understand we’re not this stagnant, corrupt, crazy country. We’re moving in the right direction.” And you wrote that eight years ago — I’d like to know if you think that’s still the case.
Alex: Well, a lot of the people I saw then probably have left the country. This was the liberal, educated, upper middle class, artistic, really interesting, sophisticated group of people. This was after the invasion of Ukraine and before the sanctions started to hit that I was there, 2014 in the spring. Moscow was incredible, a very hip, sophisticated, hot city, so I caught that. I know some of the people have left; I don’t want to go into names.
Emily: Sure. No, of course not.
Alex: You’ve got to understand that most Russians are totally behind Putin.
Emily: That was the other thing I wanted to ask you about because we’re hearing a lot, as I’m sure you’re aware, in America of “this war is Putin’s war, and the Russian people are against it and the soldiers didn’t know they were going to go fight. They thought it was an exercise” in this sort of separation between Putin and the Russian people in terms of awareness and responsibility and ownership of this invasion.
Alex: Yeah, but I think the reality is that they’re used to these brutal autocratic guys. They want a strong, ruthless Ivan the Terrible or Nicholas I or Genghis Khan; this is kind of inculcated even neurologically. There’s cross-generational trauma that expects this brutality, and anybody who speaks up against it is going to be off to Siberia or killed. That’s been going on for a very long time. But I do think there are important people — this new middle class that hasn’t all left, they are not for the war. And the media [isn’t either]; I interviewed the people from Doschd, Rain, the TV station, and Novaya Gazeta; both of those are shut down.
I am involved with the whole Ukrainian situation, in touch with a lot of people and putting stuff out there about Ukraine. It’s pretty appalling. It’s time for this stuff to stop. I met lots of Russians, educated, progressive, middle-class Muscovites; they’re sick of this stuff, and they should be. It’s time to put that kind of modus operandi to rest.
For access to Alex Shoumatoff’s body of work ,visit dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com.