To Be One of You:
Orhan Pamuk’s Intellectual Resistance

Svetlana Bunina, July 22, 2022

“Pamuk is a famous novelist, but he is not one of us” – these words you can often hear in Turkey. And this is not the strongest insult that compatriots give to their most glorious writer. The medal has two sides: Many Turkish readers can’t accept the exquisite esthetic of Pamuk’s prose (its slowness, branching, its complicated language – some people even assure, that it’s better to read Pamuk in translation) – but from the other side, a big part of Turkish society can’t accept his public position, which leaves an imprint on the interpretation of his novels.

Famous for his uncompromising statements on the Armenian genocide and criticism of the totalitarian tendencies in Turkish policy, Pamuk met his 70’s with new accusations. His last novel Nights of Plague was investigated under the authority of law 5816 – “Law concerning crimes against Ataturk”. Also, he was suspected of mockery of the Turkish flag. To top it off Pamuk openly supports Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression and criticizes Turkish power for its controversial position in this war. “I’ve never considered myself an explicitly political writer, but at a time like this, in a country like mine, it would seem dishonest, even immoral, not to talk about politics” – said Pamuk in the interview with Der Spiegel 11.03.2022.

Ironically, being the most consistent Turkish intellectual of the European variety, Pamuk is not perceived by compatriots as an Ataturk successor, which should be natural. They see him as an upstart, seeking to serve the West. And the idea of the hostile colonial West – accompanied by classifying intellectuals as enemies of the state – has been growing strongly in Turkey during this last decade. Moving more and more conservative, plunging people of the country into greater and greater poverty, Turkish nationalism is hypocritically hiding behind the image of Ataturk, using it in its own political games. Although Turkey becomes noticeably more religious in this conservative wave, “Islam doesn’t stay at the center of problems”, Pamuk said during the public discussion in Paris in October of 2021, “…the problem is authoritarianism. I am not saying that Islam does not exist in this discussion, but Erdoğan is using Islam…”

In the fascinating world of Pamuk’s prose, his historic and imaginary vision meet head-on. A native of Istanbul, immersed in a timeless sense of his place, Pamuk provides a focused optic in his famous book “Istanbul. Memory and the City” (as often in his works, the reflection of whole generations with their hopes and disappointments stays behind the image of the lyric hero). We observe the story of slow impoverishment and destruction of Orhan’s family – but it’s also a story of the devastation of the European-oriented Turkish elite. Gradually thinning, it gives way to ruder, unprincipled people, who inherited from Europe only banal desires for creature comforts. Emptiness, with the destruction of historical Istanbul and the poverty of its inhabitants, becomes one of the melancholic leitmotifs of this book. Young Orhan, the artistically gifted boy, tries to add more and more details to his first pictures, struggling against this emptiness – it becomes the first metaphor of his intellectual development. Behind the scenes, we seem to hear the voices of Proust, Nabokov… all the eternal sadness of culture, which loses the competition with history.

In 2012 Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – a unique place and project, connected with his novel of the same name. The exposition is focused on two conditional Istanbul families with their traditions, secrets, and fears. It also speaks about a wonderful young woman, which was suffocated by the cultural limitations of her time. But behind the fictional characters, it creates a story of the generation of Turkish people in the late 1970s – early 1980s, who were fighting for their private and personal freedom. It especially concerns women, whose rights have always been Pamuk’s focus as a Turkish writer. The philosophy of this museum stays at the crossroads of the key topics of our time – private history, alternative history, history of ideas. As a private, unofficial place, it tends to speak “from people to people”. And – a sign of our global times – when university professors from all over the world fly to visit this specific museum, most of Istanbul’s inhabitants don’t even know about it.

Where is the balance between political action, and creativity? Russian philosopher Anatoly Akhutin who moved to Ukraine in 2014, protesting against the first ‘stage of Russian aggression on this country, wrote in his blog a few days ago (it’s a long quote, but worth it! ): “The aversion of people of culture (in general “spiritual life”) from politics is connected with deep oblivion of the meaning of the political. The political, we used to think, is what politicians do. The abodes of culture – beauty, truth, goodness – are pure, and the dwellings of politics are intrigues in the struggle for power, lies, manipulations, demagogy … – in a word, dirt. Meanwhile, politics, as the word suggests, is the awareness of one’s life in the polis (πόλις), the civic consciousness of life, as it says, in complicity, in other words, responsibility. If the ethical is the consciousness of responsibility for one’s actions in a community of people – close, oncoming, distant, then the political is the dimension of our existence in which we are responsible for our polis being. Politics becomes dirty when we relieve ourselves of this responsibility”. The responsibility, which Akhutin writes about, is sometimes costly but leads to progress in our social life. It gives a chance to be figures (or actors) on history’s board – and not only its victims.

Speaking in these categories, what should “to be one of us” mean? To choose directly what Pamuk choose – be a voice of reason, honesty, and self-reflection.

Just to be a voice.

An Istanbul scene. Turkish photographer Ara Guler (1928-2018).

Russian Nostalgia – Part of the Imperial Myth

Svetlana Bunina

July 7, 2022

Soviet writer Isaac Babel wrote from and about Paris in 1929: “And the country – strangely – is terribly backward and very provincial. To live here in the sense of individual freedom is excellent, but we – from Russia – yearn for the wind of great thoughts and great passions”. As it goes, Babel was killed in the USSR during the Great Terror, 10 years later. His shortsighted words, so similar to the paradoxical recognitions of many other Russians, pushed me once more to peer into the phenomenon of Russian nostalgia. What do we learn about this unforgettable Russia with its “great thoughts and great passions”?

At first glance, the case seems very irrational. Well-known Russian emigrants in the XIX-XX centuries could fully recognize the benefits of European civilization and freedom. But they also believed that can’t exist without Russia – its air, language, community, and nature (the notorious image of the Russian birch tree, but it could also be a few other symbols like a rowan tree or poplar tree for Moscow). This plot is well developed in Andrey Tarkovsky’s movie “Nostalgia”. Russian writer Gorchakov (even his surname is meaningful, talking about bitterness), moves to Italy in the late Soviet years. He studies the biography of the Russian composer of the XVIII century Sosnovsky, who lived in Italy in his youth. Like many Russian talents, the musician was too homesick – that’s why he returned to Russia and died there from hopelessness (possibly killed himself). From his side, Gorchakov experiences a strong nostalgia, and a subsequent untimely death in Italy while feeling deep family guilt and lonliness. “My Lord, why did I do this? These are my children, my family, my blood. How could I do it? Not to see the sun for years, afraid of the daylight? For what? For what this trouble is?” – Gorchakov says these words in the movie climax (1’29 – 1’32 min). The scene begins with Gorchakov gazing into an old mirror on the cabinet door and concludes with him staring at the bright handle of this door, magically calling him home… A big dog, the symbol of loyalty, becomes a reappearing image throughout the movie.  

The pattern of guilt is a rational, historically conditioned key to the phenomenon of Russian nostalgia. Since the time before Peter the Great, leaving Russia was considered a betrayal. Peter “cut a window to Europe”, but the cruel imperial state, which he created at the same time, viewed people as building material. Most Russians never had freedom of movement, because the comparison with the level of freedom abroad could be dangerous for their inhuman state. Historians know, what an impression was made on Russian soldiers by their meeting with Europe during the war with Napoleon or WWII – just new cruel repressions could return people to their habitual living. Patriotic education in Russia always includes as a main part of its thesis the inseparable connection to motherland. This connection has many components, but all of them were successfully used by Russian power and then Soviet propaganda. Even the aformentioned birch tree becomes in this case an official symbol of loyalty.  Now, in 2022, Russian TV channels predictably blame new emigrants for a betrayal – but the most shocking is that even a significant part of the liberal opposition discusses the topic with similar sentiments. It shows how deeply this pattern pervades the consequences of Russian society.   

Here is one more classic case of the Russian nostalgic complex. Husband of famous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Sergey Efron, was recruited in Paris by Russian secret services in the 1930s because of his nostalgia and feeling of guilt. “Specialists on human souls” from NKVD easily found his weak place – traumatic connection with early dead parents, who professed left, revolutionary views on the border of XIX and XX centuries. Making Efron feel guilty in front of the parents’ faces (my family, my blood) they involved him in Soviet terroristic operations in France. After the grand exposure in Paris, Efron ran back to Russia and predetermined the tragedy of his family – Marina Tsvetaeva, their daughter Ariadna and son Georgy – and his own death after torture in Stalin’s prison.

Russian power still uses the same method, when saying to people “grandfathers were at war” and “we can repeat”. This means that Russian citizens have to be ready to repeat the deeds of their fathers – or they are unworthy of their memory. In 2012, two years before the Crimea annexation, Putin’s power started a patriotic movement “Immortal regiment”, making every year May 9 demonstrations with portraits of dead veterans of WWII. The pride for grandparents-winners and the victory cult became a calling card of the Putin regime before the big war with Ukraine in 2022. The state does everything to force dissidents and even more – those who are leaving to feel them as betrayers, who forgot their history and blood. No wonder a large number of Russians, who successfully lived abroad since the 1990s, now (under the influence of Russian TV propaganda) support the war with Ukraine – they also feel nostalgia, in its Russian version. Nostalgia, becoming crueler and crueler to real people.

I could speak separately about many other aspects of this topic – the vision of Russia as “great” and the whole world as provincial; the stigmatizing definition of emigration as an “easy way”; the specific Russian cult of death, about which philosopher Mikhail Epstein brightly talks – all of this may be a start of the wider research. Here I just want to draw the line between existential experiences of specific people – and attempts of the power to control these experiences. Between real suffering of war victims – and the state-fueled hysteria, which accompanies dishonorable wars.