East – Andrzej Stasiuk
East is not just a record of a journey across Russia, China, and Mongolia – it is a personal collection of the author's reflections on the condition of the modern world and a people whose identity was moulded by powerful historical forces rooted in the far East.
Where is the East, where does it begin and where does it end? Could it be said that nowadays, when Poland is part of the European Union, and Russia and China are practically capitalist countries, just like the rest of the world, being assimilated through universal globalization, that the East doesn't exist anymore?
'Communism left a void behind' Stasiuk states when observing young people. 'Walking along the hedges and across potato fields, […] in chav tracksuits and coats decorated with emblems of a global community.'
This reflection came to Stasiuk under the Siberian sky, on a train somewhere between Ulan-Ude and Chita, but it is equally applicable to the inhabitants of the Podlachian villages, Warsaw's district of Grochów, or a Chinese metropolis – it describes everyone marked with the communist project for transforming the world. Having been made to abandon their hometowns and move to foreign cities, uprooted from their traditions and everyday customs, they were subjected to forced mass migration and left to their own devices. They thus had to cope by any means possible and completely independently, against the official ideology or in a complex and often superficial cooperation with it. Just like Stasiuk's uncle, holder of a Red Party ID, hidden in the bottom of a drawer, or his grandfather, who, as a village leader, carried out the May devotions, and led the Litany of Loreto. A book about the Paris Commune which young Stasiuk received from his grandfather and the image of women praying to the Virgin Mary blended in the youngster's memory into an image of a “Commune of Virgin Mary, the Queen of Poland,” a tender and yet ironic testimony to passive resistance and an attempt to symbolically bring the system's contradictions: to the extreme:
I have no trouble imagining him conducting a red ritual: “Commune undefiled, pray for us. Commune most pure, pray for us. Commune inviolate, pray for us.” And along with him, his people, weary, enslaved, and disdained for centuries. From the desert, swamp, and barren fields. Waking up before dawn, bent throughout the day, completely barefoot. […] In grey canvas clothes, from the manure, from the dark pigsties, footwraps or bare feet inside gumboots, in worn out shirts sodden with the sour sweat of many generations. Commune most amiable, pray for us. Commune most admirable, pray for us.”
The goal of Stasiuk's trip to the East was an “expedition to the heart of metaphor” of the communist utopia, a will to witness the means of introducing it to the endless steppes and deserts of Asia, where the “never-ending space becomes a prison.” Admittedly, communism came to Poland and Europe from the East, and it is the East that has permanently and deeply marked it, but at the same time communism was also the transplanted – from Europe – “Marxist seed,” already rotten at the moment of sprouting. Communists and despots of all types were fascinated by the “luciferic glare” beaming from the unlimited spaces of Asia, as well as from its timelessness – a permanent present “reaching to the farthest future” and that is why it seemed to be the perfect subsoil for building a new Genesis. Genghis Khan, Timur, Peter the Great, Stalin, and Hitler were all attracted to the East like to a drug that inspired their frenzy, which in turn bred an illusion that those grounds could be seized and transformed. That was the exact mistake committed by Soviet communism. The system that took over the lands from Kamchatka to Elbe, despite its ideologues' declarations, was anti-materialist and intended to negate the matter, “after all, it wasn't about some childish annulment of the matter, but about annulling its subject.” The effects of that are to this day visible in the doom of the Aral Sea, though an equally palpable example is provided by the socialist blocks raised in the middle of the steppe and inhabited by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia.
Two women were building a brick wall near the main square. They looked as if they belonged to a socialist realist film. The bricks were, however, laid unevenly, and the dun blobs of mortar were leaking. They didn't know how to build cities. They didn't know how to live in them. It was starkly visible that once they found themselves among the walled up space, they crumbled. Someone did them massive harm by raising those concrete farms and then convincing them to move in.
Stasiuk's key impression from the journey across the post-communist Asia is expressed in the sentence: “The nothingness of that bizarre empire which conquered an emptiness in order to leave behind nothingness.”
Stasiuk doesn't spare real socialism. However, when accusing the Polish People's Republic, the USSR, or the People's Republic of China, he also defends the ordinary residents, appreciates their individualism and their typical, generations-long means of coping with the toil of everyday life – regardless of whether it is caused by people, grand politics, or nature. Occasionally, however, the author's emotions takes over and he adds a touch of protectionism and patronization, especially when he continually hears the mantra-like: “it used to be better.” Back in the day, under communism, people on the State Agricultural Farms “received a plot of land and could farm potatoes. But most of them didn't feel like it. After all, they could die of starvation. Their fate was carefully planned”, Stasiuk writes with a dose of irony. However, when communism was falling, the same people, thanks to their individualism, were able to reassemble the world out of the “collectivist mash.”
East is filled with nostalgia, but bereft of illusions and sentiment, as the world ended up going in the right direction. How long for, though? The post-communist void has been filled with wild capitalism. According to Stasiuk, both systems are the reverse and obverse of the same luciferic modernity, which, in its pride, rebelled against people in the name of an abstract, arbitrary idea of the Human. That is why he understands the fears and difficult fate of the listeners of the Maryja Radio Station, and that is why he condemns shopping malls and misses the 10th-Anniversary Stadium, Europe's largest market, where the East and West met, while the “cursed people of the Earth” finally “reached for what they deserved.”
Because I've always stood behind the people, even though I knew that the people always lose. So I allowed them to win at least in my mind. So that […] the powerful of the world had no access to them. So that they could live as they please. So that no one forced them into submissiveness or freedom. That was my utopia.
East is a very political book. Its political character, however, avoids the current affairs of the everyday reality of parliament and the media and tries to reach to their deep subconsciousness, the “tectonics of history.” Eagerly fighting for his philosophy of a simple man, Stasiuk convinces us that that is the most appropriate vision of humanity. This intrinsically anarchistic metaphysics may be debated or contested, but will not leave one indifferent. East is, simply, striking.
Author: Jakub Nikodem, December 2014, transl. AM, September