1 December 2023
By Valery Panyushkin
Perhaps it is only for me, only for us, natives of St Petersburg, that the closing of the border with Finland seems so important. Perhaps, Caucasians would have reacted just as painfully to the closing of the border with Georgia, and residents of the Far East to the closing of the border with China. But I am from Petersburg – for me the possibility of ‘popping over to Finland’ is a part of the cultural code. Sit down in the ‘Lastochka‘ and after only a couple of hours you’re in port in Helsinki, feasting upon whitefish caviar with sour cream and onion from a small stand.
Why is this necessary? It’s difficult to say outright. I had a cat that did not abide closed doors in the house. He could sleep on an armchair in the living room for the whole day, no plans to go anywhere, but as soon as the door was closed, the cat started to throw himself at it and demand freedom of movement. And so it is with me – I have been to Helsinki many times, but always flew there on a plane. Never in my life have I availed of the overland border terminals that are now closed, however, for me, it was profoundly important that these border terminals worked, that the door to the greater world was not locked.
I grew up in a closed country. I studied to be a historian and cultural scholar, studied the Florentine official celebrations of the 15th century – balls, parades, tournaments – and in my youth was completely sure that I would never see with my own eyes those churches in which the spectacles I described took place 500 years ago, never would I sit in Santa Croce Square, where the knightly tournaments I described unfolded, never would I walk the streets over which moved the celebratory processions I described. This was normal for the Soviet scholar. Shakespearists never saw Shakespeare’s theatre, Faulknerists never visited the American South, the academic Knorozov, who deciphered the writings of the Maya, never once visited Mexico until old age.
Imagine my surprise when in 1991 a young student such as I, thanks to political shifts in the Soviet Union, made it to the Florence I had studied up and down. Not believing my own eyes, I walked along Via Cavour and looked at the cupolas of Santa Maria del Fiore, at the baptistry with the gate of Ghiberti and the bell tower of Giotto – pinch me, I’m dreaming! And the world did not hesitate to wake me – I was so lost in contemplation that I hit my forehead on a lamppost with full force. And only then did I seriously believe that I was not dreaming, and really was in Florence, which I’d thought to study only through books.
What changed? Why did I need to see Florence in person, and not continue the theoretical study of it in the quiet of my office? Because if historical monuments actually appeared right where I expected to see them, life flowed around the monuments completely differently. Living in Florence for a year, I came to understand that in the lessons of political propaganda in school, I (a Pioneer, and then a Komsomol member) was encouraged to oppose a Europe which did not entirely exist in real life.
Back then in the Soviet Union nobody yet spoke about gays and same-sex families, but about general sexual immorality, emerging as a consequence of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. And as a young man, honestly speaking, I impatiently awaited this sexual immorality, but it became clear that Italy was a Catholic country, and on the weekends most go to church, not to nightclubs.
I also did not witness the bestial ‘grin of capitalism’ anywhere, and I did witness ‘exploitation of one person by another,’ of course, but in much milder forms than in my homeland. Coming from the ‘most literate country in the world,’ I unexpectedly found myself to be the least well-read of my university colleagues… In brief, when the world opened for me, I found it altogether not as Soviet propagandists had described it, and not even as nonconformists and dissidents in Russia had described it.
So now, when the world closes anew for Russians, fellow countrymen of mine again await a strange fate – decades to oppose a West that does not exist in real life.
Translated by Alyssa Rider