Morning is Wiser Than Evening

If I had to summarize my life philosophy in one phrase, I would pick the Russian proverb, morning is wiser than evening. The phrase appears in many Russian folk-tales. I used to read these avidly as a kid. The world of Ivan the youngest of three sons, Vasilisa the beautiful and my favorite, Baba Yaga the witch, who rode around on a stove, is a sad and pensive one, but one you yearn to visit. Morals are careless afterthoughts. Russian folktales  are primarily impressionistic little gems that create a mood more than they tell a story. If you read the stories, you get a sense of where Chekov got his more grown-up inspirations. Chekov is, to me, the quintessentially Russian writer. I’ve read some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but neither captures what I imagine the Russian landscape to be like, the way Chekov does.

I have never been to Russia, but whenever I see or hear something Russian, I think of Chekov, not the others. The first piece of Western classical music I ever heard was Tchiakovsky’s Marche Slave (Slavonic March). In the years since, I’ve listened to most major composers, but few have affected me as much as Marche Slave. I think of Chekov when I hear it. Curiously, another piece of music that affects me the same way is Dvorak’s popular Symphony No 9 (the New World symphony). Though Dvorak was Czech rather than Russian, he brought the same broader East European sensibilities to his music as the classic Russian composers. His  musical portrait of America captures the emotions and rhythms of the continent better than most American music. Dvorak was among the first to realize that American music would come to be strongly shaped by Black culture. His music seems to find the sadness in the American landscape that Americans themselves seem to have been furiously trying to avoid since Whitman. If Tocqueville managed to read and write America, Dvorak managed to hear and sing it.

The visual images of Russia in my head — drawn from sources ranging from James Bond movies to the beautiful new documentary Wild Russia — seem to have a distinctive character.  There are other northerly countries whose landscapes are shaped by snow, but Russia seems special. Movies like Trans-siberian are worth watching for the visuals alone.  Read Jeffrey Talyer’s Atlantic essay on traveling solo, overland across Siberia. Chances are, you’ll never make this journey, so you might as well read about it in this very visually evocative essay.

Sadly, I can’t easily find my Soviet-era childhood favorites anymore.  Back in the 80s, in pre-liberalization Soviet-leaning India, some of the best and cheapest English reading material you could find was Soviet-produced English translations of classic and not-so-classic Russian works. Many of these books came from Mir Publishers, which apparently still exists. But the books are hard to find. At least, they aren’t a click away on Amazon. I suppose if I did some diligent hunting, I’d find used copies somewhere, or some obscure seller of remaindered copies. Or maybe some equivalent Western translations (but these are not the same. There’s something about Soviet-era Soviet-produced English translations of Chekov, for instance, that seems to be missing in more readily-available translations). The death of any empire, even one labeled evil, is a sad thing in at least a few ways. Things slowly get lost. The adult classics will at least survive in some form. The children’s books may be lost forever.

One of my favorite “lost books” was called Happy Days, a story about a little Russian boy, Vanya, growing up on a farm. I can’t find it anymore. It was a little square book with a red cover. The book is about Vanya’s life, but also about his desire to see a moose. He gets to see one. Portraits of young-boy views of life are perhaps the truest views of a country. I wouldn’t say Vanya is the Tom Sawyer of Russia (there is no comparison as far as literary quality goes), but it is the same sort of perspective.

In the 19th century, Europeans used to call Africa the Dark Continent. Today, as some cultures get amplified and distributed in accelerated ways, thanks to the (still largely-Anglo) Internet, parts of the world are going digitally dark. Russia among them. It isn’t about poor connectivity or infrastructure. It is about bits dying if they are not actively traded. Russia as an idea seems to be fading in the global consciousness far faster than you would expect. This isn’t just the normal rise and fall of empires. In the age of the Internet, there are only two continents: the main, harshly-floodlit continent, and the digital Dark Continent. The former is about the bit-churn at the forefront of the Real-Time Web. The latter is about forgotten empires, hard-to-find books, and young people furiously striving to make an American buck. Dying empires in centuries past used to live on, like spent supernovae, in what came after.  Graves were respected spaces. But the biases of the Internet interrupt that natural process of cultural reincarnation, and cause a more complete forgetting. If a memory isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. If a culture dies, tweets from the vigorous, living cultures flood the resulting global attention vacuum before any process of local regeneration can begin. Bits that aren’t constantly churning in the Real-Time Web are dead bits. Memories of Soviet Russia are dead bits. The dead-bit graves of the Internet are not respected spaces.

It is not nostalgia or conservative traditionalism that is coming over me these days. I don’t really do nostalgia, and I am not a traditionalist. I think what is descending is a sense of mourning. The Internet is shaping a new vortex-world, and the still waters are being forgotten, which is the same as digital death.

But it is late, and morning is wiser than evening. Perhaps tomorrow I will hear news of Google launching a major effort to find, digitize and bring into the shining digital floodlights, the remains of Soviet Russia. Maybe I’ll find Vanya again on Google Books.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I’ve been enjoying your posts for quite a while now, but this one caught me by surprise. I didn’t think that there was much exposure to the Russian culture in India or US ( especially the US).

    I don’t know if this will be of much help to you, but Russian internet isn’t a dark void, it’s just … well… Russian and a bit awkward to navigate it without solid knowledge of the language. Since it’s mostly disconnected from the internet “mainland” (at least link-wise, the protocols are the same :) ) you might want to try Rambler.ru as your search engine. It also has translation features, I think. I’m not sure you’ll find your Vanya out there, but I’m certain you’ll find a few other gems out there.

    I wish you the best of luck on your journey.

  2. This post spurred interesting thoughts, as always. Do you think this is a case of technological victors writing our digital history? Or are you pointing to something more specifically Russian?

  3. Matthew:

    See Simon’s comment. I may be wrong about the level of collapse of Soviet era stuff. I don’t know the extent to which the “Russian Internet” of today is Russian in culture, as opposed to tied to the main Internet economically (via good and bad hackers etc. etc…)

    But definitely the overall “sphere of influence” of the old Soviet empire has completely collapsed, so the extended cultural impact has vanished.

    And it was an implosion rather than the victors writing the history. The point is, NOBODY is writing the history really. The attention vacuum has simply been taken over by other matters. “Russia” used to mean a LOT in 1985. Now it means “botnets, mail-order brides and mafia” to most people. Probably unfair and wrong, but that’s the number of bits allotted to “Russia” these days. Back then it loomed as large as China does today.

    Venkat

  4. occasionally, you’ll find the old russian books reprinted by new publishers in india. i picked up a slim book of tolstoi’s stories for children the other day. the production quality is quite poor, not as good as the older russian books, which were quite superb. the old soviet books had a solid quality to them. they were beautifully produced with beautiful illustrations, with some specific russian/soviet aesthetic.

    chekov is more accessible than the russian novelists, but among the novelists, dostoevsky is god! chekov and dostoevsky are probably the most popular russian writers in india. the soviet union was also a huge influence on the indian hindi film industry in the 50s.

  5. I guess the Russians got tired of reaching and helping out to other nations, that’s might be the reason it feels as non-existent in the net.

    And you don’t need Google Books , there are thousands of individual that scan the most obscure books . If you not afraid to venture into the dark side of bittorrent you can download gigabytes of gigabytes of books for any particular taste.

  6. I can relate to what you are talking about.
    Growing up in India (New Delhi) we were exposed to the USSR publications to be had for cheap. For it’s role the US had USIS but the material was not the same stuff i.e. you could get Tolstoy and Chekhov but you could not get a Hemingway or Mark Twain for cheap.
    You state “Russia as an idea seems to be fading in the global consciousness far faster than you would expect”, I would state that is certainly true for the British Empire of the past, England has faded in the global consciousness from a standpoint of what does England contribute to the global collective.The digital revolution thrives on a society that has a very short attention span. This society we live in today acts and behaves more like a gold fish in a bowl, remembering only the last 5 seconds of it’s existence.
    But I also suspect your writing this suggests a sense of acknowledgement on your part that what you experienced is fast disappearing like objects in a rear-view mirror.

    On a side note you can get a lot of the stuff you are looking for from places in India. Old Delhi has road called Daryaganj and has many book stores that have tons of this material to be had for cheap.

  7. Wow this brought back some memories. I remembered when I was a little kid (maybe 5) my auntie (tai) used to read me these fairy tales in Punjabi. I evocatively remember baba yaga and the chicken legged house.

  8. When you say Soviet Russia do you mean USSR?
    Don’t forget USSR was hugely diverse. All the countries are split up now and are desperately trying to regenerate and redefine their unique cultures, histories, languages, music and literature too.
    Many of these countries want nothing to do with USSR. Some feel it was forced onto them, and as a result old books and stories fade away.
    It may be wrong, and they may regret no preserving that chunk of history…

  9. Hi Venkat,
    I’ve followed your blogs posts for awhile now but this is the first time I’m commenting. I grew up with the Russian fairy tales from New Century Book House in India that sold books by the Mir Publishers and Progress Publishers from Moscow and have quite a few of them saved still. Also the excellent Physics for Fun and Maths for Fun by I. Perlman. I just today stumbled upon this site that sells some of these Russian books and thought you might be interested:
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/HannaRivka
    Her blog has some of the illustrations from the books also: http://librarything-svetlana.blogspot.com/
    Cheers!

  10. Ayshwaria says:

    Hi, i can so well relate to you with the loss of Vanya and “Happy Days” – which i ‘ve been trying to desperately find over the years. If you come across it anytime do share it please. Until then lets hope to keep the search on, on a positive note.
    Good Luck!!

    • I’m so desperately searching for Happy days and stories surrounding
      Vanya and his grandma cooking sweet buns and their cows and his friends collecting berries, oh! So very beautiful. Wish I’d saved that book for my girls. If anyone knows where I’m Delhi can I find itls do let me know…till then let’s keep searching.

  11. I’ve been looking for Vanya’s story too… had the book when i was little, but we changed houses way too many times. I figure it got lost during a move :(

  12. Happy Days is my favourite book too. And if any one finds it please share the information with us. And Mr. Venkat has worded my views about the Russian literature very aptly. Thank you. And looking forward for any word on Happy Days.

  13. Happy days was my favorite book too…still remember vanya and his trip to his cousins(I think) farm and how magical his discovery of the flowers that glow in the dark felt like…it was brilliantly illustrated….another gem was the magazine ‘misha’ …I tried to learn Russian b following the lessons in it! ….also got gifted this hard bound book called ‘Ukrainian folk tales’ for my tenth birthday! And it was full of quite violent stories in hindsight!! Yes and someone mentioned y. Perelmans physics made easy…I loved the optical illusions and the designs for perpetual motion machines in it! Thanks for bringing back memories of summer vacations filled with wistful imaginings fueled by these quaint books!