Mapping the territory of an impossible love

Maxim Kantor
12 December 2001


There is no one I can write to except you: I’ve lost almost all my friends.

Russian Sphinx
The Russian Sphinx. (Click for bigger image)

I’ve lived a lot in the West and forgotten the wastelands of my native country and its cotton sky, which resembles the gowns that patients wear in hospitals. Every time I looked at it from afar I had the impression of seeing a mirage. When I returned home it was the West that became illusory. I never succeeded in making these two spaces intersect. I understood that my body and mind – what I call myself – must become a place where these two places meet.The more nebulous the West looked, the vaguer Russia appeared and the less real I became myself. It was only the map – the huge, ugly spot that depicts Russia and proves that the Russians exist – that confirmed that everything is real and that life is absurd on purpose. The vision of Sophia or the Fair Maiden and other fantastic works of my fellow countrymen are the fruit of a phantom existence: two mirages which have combined to make a third – the Russian idea, Russian Cosmism or Russian love. My whole life, I’ve lived for mirages. I don’t want to any more.

Where is Russia?

This letter is like a map. When one looks at a map of the world, one sees that time and history have made it such that, like ripples around a stone cast into water, concentric circles radiate around a strong cultural field of force. The historic, well-defined nations of Europe are surrounded by two belts of national territory that enclose the European space. The boundaries of the latter are progressively more compact and its various nations less populous. The latter have a modest historical impact, yet they are fully-fledged representatives of Europe, for they live, so to speak, off the energy of the inner circles.

Chimera of Eurasia
The Chimera of Eurasia. (Click for bigger image)

Russia does not fit into this structure. She is located beyond the outer ring of Europe, outside the belt of small states and minor tribes, yet she is so uncommonly large that she outweighs in mass the very nucleus of the European structure. It is impossible to imagine these two bodies – Russia and Europe – as plastically or constructively making up a whole. Russia herself created a defensive cultural belt made up of Ukranians, Byelorussians, Mordvinians, northern peoples and Caucasian tribes, along with an outer belt of Serbs, Bulgarians, and Slovaks. In a certain sense, the Chukchi are just as much full fledged representatives of the cultural body of Russia as the Romanians are of Europe, and the Chechens incarnate Moscow just as the Poles do Paris.

I’m not an advocate of the theory of the ‘heartland’. I don’t believe that the Eurasian plain promises blessings that are lacking in oceanic civilisations. I’m only saying that every strong cultural space on this planet creates around itself defensive belts, which accounts for the shape of maps. Russia belongs neither to the European nor to the Asian space but creates its own.

This is a question neither of history, nor of culture, nor even of geography. It is a question of geometry: how can something be part of a whole, if, even when taken alone, it is many times bigger than this whole?

The cartography of faces

Once my father told me that over the years the human face becomes a map of a person’s life and soul. You can read a face as if it were a map: just as lines and spots represent rivers and seas, the wrinkles and folds on a face speak of thoughts and passions. The clearer the thoughts and the more violent the passions, the more chiselled the traits. Certain faces resemble land covered by trenches: looking at them, you can imagine what battles were waged there. Others resemble a map of a desert: nothing takes place on them. Yet others are like a map of the outskirts of a town: the traits on them are accidental, and it’s difficult to remember them.

Portrait of my mother and of an old woman. (Click for bigger image)

I find the comparison between faces and maps convincing, for maps help people to find their way, and, if we were to liken life to a journey, we have to use a map with distinct contours so as not to get lost. However, such contours are rare. Look around yourself, and you’ll see nothing but blank faces. You don’t have time to acquire a countenance when you’re always hurrying. This is how Greenland is represented on maps: coloured-in on the edges and empty inside.

There are faces that are fair like a Tuscan landscape, or lucid like a bay of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet what I like are unhurried people with clear-cut and serene faces, like a snow-covered wasteland. I know of no better example than my mother’s broad Russian face. When I was little, it did not seem especially expressive to me. Yet, as the years passed, I began to value such faces. They are not expressive or striking in their profundity, like some faces. But strangely enough, faces with sharp and striking features have ceased to attract me; they have too much pathos. A map doesn’t need pathos: a map is indifferent and, for this reason, sublime. Over the years, my mother’s face hardened: broad cheekbones, a short nose, and a dry mouth. She began to resemble a stone image, and something ancient – most likely, Mongol – became conspicuous in her face.

Portrait of my father. (Click for bigger image)

When I see my mother and father's faces side by side, it's as if I were looking at two different maps representing the West and the East.

These maps are drawn differently. A map of the West seems to be engraved on copper: every line is sure and precise. A map of the East is like a woodcut: the steppe has no details. One looks at a map of the West with interest, for something is always taking place there. One looks differently at a map of a wasteland: it’s not you who looks at it. It is the wasteland which scrutinises you. You must prove useful to it.

You don’t have to understand a wasteland or figure it out. You just have to look at it with the same melancholy passion that the wasteland looks at you. The sooner you understand that you are one with it, the better. For the day will come when you will merge with it. These maps are drawn differently. A map of the West seems to be engraved on copper: every line is sure and precise. A map of the East is like a woodcut: the steppe has no details. One looks at a map of the West with interest, for something is always taking place there. One looks differently at a map of a wasteland: it’s not you who looks at it. It is the wasteland which scrutinises you. You must prove useful to it. You don’t have to understand a wasteland or figure it out. You just have to look at it with the same melancholy passion that the wasteland looks at you. The sooner you understand that you are one with it, the better. For the day will come when you will merge with it.

The circles of survival

The City

Take a look at our city, whose wastelands stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s not a city at all; it doesn’t look like a city. What is called a city in other countries is the merging of many wills, the competition of ambitions. Buildings in such a city strive to outdo each other in height, to push each other aside, to take up a neighbour’s space: garret sits on top of garret and chimney climbs over chimney. Millions of individuals and destinies are united in a single enterprise – to become immortal. Our city is different. It is the merging of millions of weak wills; everyone tries to hide himself as deeply and as surely as possible. Winter is eternal here. People go about wrapped up in heavy fur coats and huge hats and submerged in clothing. Faces conceal their traits between layers of fat.

This city is arranged in circles, and each circle is hidden more deeply and surely within the city.

Change of Elites; new toys. (Click for bigger image)

The city map is like the cross-section of a tree. Usually one can tell how old a tree is by counting its rings: here it is of no importance. The city is without memory, not because it wants to forget about crimes and all sorts of filth, but because it acquires freedom and peace of mind only through oblivion. Millions of passions and lives are united in a single enterprise: to hold your breath and endure. Crooked streets, squatting houses, shrivelled up courtyards – one must be an aficionado of hide-and-seek in order to like this place.

No other city hides its will to life so deeply. This was once a great city and capital of an awe-inspiring country; people were afraid of it, and its name was used to frighten children. Today, it’s a sandbank, a wasteland. Meanwhile, we are left at the tidemark, the edge of someone else’s existence. The tide brings to our wasteland the remains of an alien civilisation. A lot of people live in Russia, and no-one knows what to do with them. They’ve been baptised, they’ve been prepared for socialism, but nothing’s worked: they’re the same as ever. A radical method that hasn’t yet been tried would be to inscribe them all as Europeans – and let them sort it out on their own. That’s yet another great idea of those in power: try declaring Russians to be Europeans and let Europe become responsible for them.

Neither with you, nor without you

Parliamentary Debates. (Click for bigger image)

Yes, it’s high time to teach Russian peasants the ABCs of democracy, and the instinct of private property. True, it’s a bit difficult to inculcate the instinct of private property when the land is infertile, as it is on two-thirds of Russian territory. Ownership of what? Loam? Tundra? Permafrost? Marshland? Even if people were willing to settle in these infertile regions, one can’t expect that now the Mongol and Bolshevik yoke is over, they will shake themselves up and begin to hoe land. They won’t do it. For the very good reason that nothing will ever grow there anyway – people have tried it many a time already. Another reason is that people have adapted to living in such conditions, and that’s the most important thing. There’s no need to change.

Russian rulers like being Europeans. To this end, they’re even willing to draft a law or two. The only thing that hinders this wonderful undertaking is the people: what can one do with them? These scoundrels wish to remain uncouth, and so there’s nothing left but to have Moscow or St Petersburg, (or the Kremlin alone) join civilisation all by themselves. The accursed contradiction of Russian history is that people have always wanted to rule an Asiatic people à l’européen.

Your turn! (Click for bigger image)

This state of affairs has given rise to the so-called ‘inner Europeans’: the intelligentsia, the army, and civil servants – that is, the government’s retinue.

Another consequence is that the government itself, as an instrument of coercion, must become Asiatic in its incarnated form.

Only in this way will the Asiatic nation be able to grasp it. Such a complex structure accounts for the centripetal momentum of Russian life: the European retinue detests the Asiatic face of power, the European government despises the Asiatic people, and its Asiatic leader, and the people fear the Asiatic aspect of power, and hate the European aspect.

The Wheel of History. (Click for bigger image)

Russian society is divided not into classes but into cultures – into quasi-Europeans and quasi-Asians. Oppressing and killing each other, they spin the merry go-round of Russian history. It’s not a tragedy, no. It’s only life on the periphery, in a strange abode. Wasn’t it clear from the start that it’s a house of the dead – a necropolis – and that its destiny would likewise be dismal? What can we do now if we don’t have (and never have had) any other home besides this one?

I’ve got another question too: why does depend on an absurd place and unwanted relatives? And what does it have to do with the fact that I don’t want to see any other map except your face, or any other country except your body?

man and woman
The Red & The Black. (Click for bigger image)

Why couldn’t we love simply and live a simple and serene life together? Why did our feelings have to depend on the geography and structure of our society?

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData