During a winter I spent in Moscow, in 2000, I befriended an old Jewish guy who would rock up to anyone who looked foreign and tell them a joke in whatever language they spoke (I think he spoke 7 or 8 languages – he had once been a professor of something). The joke was a Soviet-era ‘Popov’ joke (I won’t go into detail – it was a trope, and none of them were funny). And after he told the unfunny joke, he would explain it. And then ask for money.
One day we ran into each other in Gorky Park, a frozen waste with closed-down carnival rides, grey skies, and a small stand selling chips, packets of cigarettes, and half-litre bottles of vodka, so I bought us two of each and sat down on a bench to smoke, munch, and get pleasantly hammered. And he told me his life story. Of course, booze isn’t too good for the memory; so while I remember it all in essence, I have forgotten most in detail – apart from one story:
During the Red Army’s headlong race to Berlin in the late winter and spring of 1945 – when they were traveling so fast that brigades of soldiers were marched abreast across minefields in order to clear any explosives, since their heavy armour and minesweepers simply couldn’t keep up – they started to come across factories staffed with Russian women and girls who had been captured by the Wermacht in their Eastward push, enslaved, removed to the rear and forced to work. Now, according to Soviet propaganda, anyone who was giving assistance to the Nazis was a traitor and collaborator, so the dormitories where the girls were kept became instant rape camps for the Red Army soldiers; here were pretty Slavic girls who spoke the same language, who could ably fill in for those girls remembered from back home, if only for an afternoon… I remember a few years ago reading an account by one of these women where she laughed – laughed – at her silliness in resisting the first rape. It wasn’t until the second, and third, that she realised that it was better to just give in and save herself extra violence.
And let’s face it. Armies always were, with rare exceptions, up until very recent history all pretty much swarms of rapists. Sex is one of the few consolations of war. Let’s not hide our faces and pretend that we have suddenly evolved in the last fifty years into a species where violence and the urge to subjugation is a rare, isolated aberration in our new genetic code. It’s what we do best as a species…
I digress. Back to the story: my sozzled old Shtetl buddy told me about his best friend in the War, a towering blonde Slav farm-boy from a small village somewhere south-east of Moscow. They had somehow, miraculously, survived several months of fighting together: both had been too young to fight in the charnel-houses of Stalingrad, and had really only been pressed into duty once the Germans were in retreat – although the killing was still being done at a furious pace (German officers who had fought on both fronts used to call battles with the Western Allies ‘maneuvers with live ammunition’ in comparison to the fury of the Eastern front – and if anyone is in doubt about who ‘won’ WWII, bear in mind that 9 out of 10 Germans killed in the war were killed by Russians)
So our two friends were surviving in this hell, and one warmish March day the tall blonde friend was allowed to take an afternoon’s R&R in one of the russian rape dormitories. I’ll allow your imagination to fill in those details.
Later that evening and into the night, a spring blizzard moved through the area. The temperature plummeted, men looked for warmth in whatever shelter they could find – and when morning came my Jewish friend went searching for his buddy, only to find his body in a haystack, frozen to death. He had removed his greatcoat and wrapped it around an orphaned young Polish farm girl, and held her tight in the cold so that she could survive the night.
In a matter of a few hours, this man had gone from mindless depravity to self-sacrificing nobility. He had been a monster and a saint. And in doing so, he had merely been a human being in an extraordinary circumstance. We ALL have the capacity for utmost nastiness and utmost good. We just need the circumstance to be right for us to express it. Good people, teachers and doctors, will head up ethnic cleansing squads. For every Oscar Schindler there is a neighbor, the one who lent you their lawnmower, who will burn your house to the ground with you in it. Your brother-in-law will drag you from your bed and hack you to pieces with a machete. Or a cop with a spotless record, charged with defending civil law, will shoot you when you try to cross a bridge to flee the flooding in your New Orleans parish. These people aren’t ‘evil’. That implies a diabolical, a supernatural element. They are infinitely human, in thrall to impulses and doctrines of hate, anger, and murder.
I recently watched a 20/20 item from a few years ago, where a guy was emotionally and physically abusing his wife so badly he was sentenced to 36 years in jail. He had his 13-year-old son document his ‘punishments’ on the wife, with a home video camera, so when he played it back to her she could see how her behavior warranted his reaction. That footage was played in court, and in the piece: at one point, he drags her off a bed where he has shoved her, onto the floor. She is covering her face, trying to be as still and passive as possible to avoid inciting him further, trying to protect herself. And as he slaps and pokes her you could hear the rage in his voice taking over, barely contained – yes, he was violent, but inside that voice, at one particular moment, I could hear the true rage that he was actually holding down, the impulse to close the hand into a fist; I could hear the tension in his body as the muscles required to pull the blows back warred with the muscles that wanted to release their full energy into her curled body; I could hear the homicide trying to rip itself up to the surface. That the woman in the video is alive today is a kind of miracle, I believe.
I believe we all have that voice in us. I think that that husband got the sentence he got because the Judge heard himself in that voice, and realised how scary and how dangerous that it is, how powerful and all-consuming. We are at our worst when that voice starts to come out. We are at our best when we have the guts to recognise the Bad in ourselves.
If we deny that it is there, how can we ever fight it?