Sunday, February 15, 2009
The scale of Russian death in WWII boggles the mind. Twenty five to thirty million, more or less, died in the Soviet Union--several million more if you include the Stalin purges. Clearly these aren't precisely measured numbers. They are just blind guesses, efforts to give a concrete dimension to an incomprehensible and indefinable explosion of pain and suffering. They died in such magnitude that it is a wonder the dying doesn't reverberate every day in the soul of western civilization. People were Russia's weapon. Early in the war, when they lacked equipment, the Soviet strategy was simply to pour in more troops until they overwhelmed the enemy. Soviets suffered three to one losses on the German front, whether they were winning or losing. If the Russian soldiers retreated, they were shot from behind. The civilians in the vast battle area from Leningrad to the Black Sea suffered even more. No record can express their suffering. Understandably, the programmed death in German concentration camps captures our attention, and our sympathy. But in the Soviet Union, people were dying everywhere, not just in killing camps. Even today, Russian weekender gardeners dig up the bones of soldiers who died in the massive battles of 1941-42. The scale of death, so beyond anything we can imagine, reminds us that numbers alone can never give a qualitative sense of suffering. We relate better to 50 people dying in an airline crash in Buffalo. Or the 3,000 or died in the World Trade Center. We can break those deaths down into individual stories, with detail and anecdotes, so we gain a sense of proportion. Even the Holocaust can be real because of the rich narrative tradition that makes sure we remember people who died, person by person, name by name. But how do you get your head around the thirty million people who were slaughtered in the Russian mud? What are their stories? And who can tell them?
Anne Bradstreet was America's first poet. But a case can be made that she also was the first to articulate the immigrant experience in America. She was the child of a new class of people in Elizabethan England--the managing, business class--and had a privileged childhood in England that gave her an education beyond anything available to women. She used it fully. Transported to the wilderness of Massachusetts in 1630, and living as a frontier wife who bore many children, she never lost her love of reading and study in the classical and religious texts of the day. When her first poems were published in England in 1650, they caused a sensation. The idea that America was a different, and maybe better, place was rampant in the turmoil of the English civil war. Anne's contribution was to articulate what it meant to have one foot in the old world and one in the new. She never forgot that she was English, and she never doubted that she was a new thing--an "American." That tension, so central to the immigrant experience throughout American history, was first captured in her elegant poems. No matter how it is expressed, it represents the same today--the tug and pull between coming from somewhere else, and now finding, not just a place, but a role, in a new society.