March 10, 2009
Some weeks ago, I clipped an obituary out of The Economist, dated February 7th 2009; it has been sitting on my desk, and, on Saturday, I began thinking about why I had kept it there. It reports the death of a twenty-five year old Russian journalist named Anastasia Baburova, who, on January 19th, was shot in the head in the center of Moscow, in broad daylight, moments after a friend of hers, Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer, was also shot and killed. It is unclear whether the assailant targeted her from the start or if he shot her because she intervened to protect her friend. Her death comes at a time when the case of another murdered Russian journalist remains unsolved, that of Anna Politkovskaya, who angered the Russian government by her critical reporting of the war in Chechnya and, like Baburova, worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
At the top of the Economist obituary, there is a photograph. It shows a scene from a nighttime street demonstration, presumably in Moscow; three men are pictured, apparently listening, with varying degrees of attention, to a political speech; the one in the middle, a young man with Slavic features, holds up a white sign, on which is pasted a black and white photograph of Ms. Baburova.
Not long after this article appeared, I saw, on the television, a short news piece on this case. A brief scene was shown from Anastasia Baburova’s funeral: her mother was seen approaching the bier; next to it was this same photograph.
It must be said that the Russians are a people who know some things about icons. Whether the photograph of Anastasia Baburova has an iconic character is perhaps debatable, but it is certainly a very striking picture. In a single image, it says something about a whole life.
Three years ago about this time, I went into New York City to attend an exhibition of Russian art at the Guggenheim Museum, meeting there my friends Bill Ney (who writes the blog The New Combat) and Brother Robert Smith. There are many things that I remember from this exhibit, which was the last time I saw Brother Robert while he was still well. One would have thought that the examples of early Russian iconography, e.g., the Andrei Rublev paintings and the large Deesis panel from the Kirillo-Beloezersk Monastery, would have left the deepest impression on my mind; but I have to say that this was not so. (In any case, I always feel vaguely awkward when viewing icons in a museum, where they are meant to be seen as art and where one is not supposed to venerate them.) The paintings that I in fact spent the most time looking at were four, all of them from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The first, though not the earliest, was a huge mural from the early 1960’s, an example of Socialist realism, titled “Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station” by the artist Viktor Popkov. The painting, which is permanently on exhibit at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, shows four muscular construction workers and a diminutive woman, taking a lunch break. I spent a long time looking at it, trying to decide whether it was ugly or beautiful; in the end, it seemed to me that the artist, although commissioned to do the work for a political end, had succeeded in conveying something of the humanity and self-respect of these people, who stand looking at you or looking the other way, not pretending to be other than what they are. (Brother Robert, I have to say, didn’t like it.) The second painting that caught my attention was a mid-nineteenth-century portrait of a Russian girl, red-haired, probably between 15 and 17 years old. She looked utterly normal and utterly happy to be alive; it did not seem, in looking at the painting, that what I was looking at was a girl who lived a hundred and fifty years ago. A third picture, another painting from the nineteenth century, was a portrait of a lady, dark-haired, dressed head to toe in what must have been a riding uniform. There was a curious, forceful purposefulness to her gaze and gait, which held my attention for a long time, as I wondered who she was and what she was up to. Brother Robert came by and asked what I saw in the picture; I wasn’t quite sure myself, and pointed out to him the rich colors; he said, “Ah yes, the colors…” or something like that. It seemed to me that seeing beauty in a painting (or, perhaps, in anything else) is somewhat like getting the point of a joke: the experience is not easily communicable, it tends to become compromised in the act of explaining it. For my own part, I show my lack of aesthetic sensibility by the fact that I take more interest in the persons and things depicted than in the depiction as such.
The fourth picture at the exhibition that caught my attention was a contemporary painting, and a disturbing one. It was an allegorical representation of contemporary Russia as a disheveled, probably dissolute woman careening through the snow in a mad troika, a boyfriend at her side, the frantic horses being pushed to the limit; behind them, in close pursuit, follow demonic hounds. I wasn’t quite sure what the painting was saying, but it seemed to be saying something true. The absolute, prostituting pursuit of wealth and immediate enjoyment seems to be a mad joyride, with disaster directly on one’s heels.
Perhaps that was the Russia Anastasia Baburova lived in and wrote about; perhaps it was also that Russia which killed her. I get the sense, in seeing her photograph and reading the few translated excerpts from her blog, that she was a fundamentally honest young woman, who loved life and people and hated fascism, which she saw spreading in her society like some poisonous mold or fungus. She doesn’t appear to have been particularly religious; perhaps she didn’t live long enough to feel a need to be. She reminds me, in some ways, of another Anastasia, the Natasha of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of my favorite characters in all of world literature, someone whose faults, such as they were, always resulted from an overflowing superabundance of life and too great a faith in the basic goodness of humanity. A less calculating, utilitarian personality can hardly be imagined. My impression is that Anastasia Baburova was that sort of a person. That Russia should still be producing such people tells me that that land has not yet completely lost its ancient greatness of soul; that it allows them to be murdered tells me that its soul is not in good health — although, as an American, I realize that I must not throw stones at other people’s houses.