“Do you think it was really the Chechens?”
I was in a car in Copenhagen on my way to a Russian dinner party and poetry reading. I was in the city to interview Lyudmila Weil, widow of Russian dissident Boris Weil, and had been invited to this salon of sorts the night before. As students of Russian literature dream of one day attending a Russian salon/soirée (that is, at least, what this student of Russian literature has done), I accepted. I did not, however, go so far as to accept the invitation to stay overnight with my interviewee, which is how I found myself in a car driven by an old friend of Weil’s, accompanied by his wife and poet son. The latter was, in heavily accented English, expressing disbelief that Chechnya would attack America.
“I don’t think it was Chechnya,” I tried to explain.
We were not the first to arrive at the dinner. A professor of chemistry/poet and his two children (one my age, a student of America pedagogy who had never been to America, and one a teenager) had already arrived. His very young wife was still on her way. But, eventually, all nine of us were at the table, eating and drinking and discussing (in Russian, which the poet son, who spoke like a character in a Chekhov play, and who had stubbornly spoken English in the car, now said I should speak). They read Brodsky and Akhmatova and Pasternak out loud and debated the various merits of each. They toasted to the memory of Boris Weil. They argued over whether or not Obama is a Muslim (I was of some help on this one). They talked about the Navalny case. And, after someone read this poem, Brodsky’s mournful love letter to his nation, aloud, they discussed what it meant to love a nation, or a people.
“Do you think,” I asked, “that a person can love or understand a nation that isn’t his own?”
They thought for a moment.
“Of course,” the poet son declared. “I love America.”
And I, who had come six hours by train to interview a Russian and attend her rapturous salon, smiled and agreed.
I returned the next day to interview (and then have tea with) Lyudmila Weil. We spoke of her distance from Russia, and of what it was like to emigrate, and of life in Copenhagen versus life there. Of her sister, who lives in a Russian village and loves Putin. And of her husband, who brought her into his world, one in which only the very best people lived, and who did not do all that he wanted, but managed what he could, and what he thought was right.
I asked her what today’s dissidents in Russia could learn from their Soviet counterparts. She told me that she thought they’d all been forgotten. But they hadn’t, I assured her. Pussy Riot mentioned them in court. Navalny mentioned them in an interview with The New York Times.
“Well,” she said, smiling. “Слава богу.”
Thank God, indeed.