Time to forget about emigration

May 28, 2013

[Author Leonid Bershidsky discusses the recent emigration (and alleged emigration) of liberal journalists Masha Gessen and Oleg Kashin—Ed.]

On the same day, we found out that both Masha Gessen, a writer and ex-editor, and Oleg Kashin, a columnist have “emigrated.” In the first case it was Masha herself who told us, and we found out about Oleg Kashin from Eduard Limonov. One could conclude that liberal writers are fleeing Russia because of the unbearable political climate, which has become even worse than the natural climate. However, that conclusion doesn’t make much sense, because the very notion of “emigration” has lost its relevance. However, the following discussion addresses voluntary emigration, not some kind of forced exodus, which is a separate subject of research.

Kashin was interviewing Limonov via Skype, from which the revolutionary writer concluded that the journalist had moved. “From Kashin’s not very coherent explanation, I understood that in Moscow he is persecuted, they denied him access to any opportunity to make money, and that’s why he is forced to live in Switzerland,” Limonov wrote. As to Mr. Kashin, in response to a direct question by a colleague from Lenta.ru regarding whether he’d emigrated, he snapped: “fu**kigrated” (and posted a screenshot of that phone conversation on Facebook using iMessage; you can clearly see the name of the mobile operator: Swisscom).

That is, Kashin interviews people for Afisha, a Russian magazine, via Skype, provides comments to another Russian publication using select Russian expletives, and stays in touch with his Moscow friends. So, where is Kashin? He’s here, where else could he be? Although his presence is ensured by Swisscom.

Even if Kashin stops renting his apartment in Moscow and rents a place in Geneva, that wouldn’t mean he’s going anywhere, for a very simple reason: Swiss websites are not interested in his columns, and Swiss magazines are doing fine without his interviews. Well, at least not on such a scale that Kashin could afford to rent an apartment. Anyway, is it really important where Kashin’s bed is, or his physical body, if his brain is with us?

And even Masha Gessen, who is able to write in English, and successfully sells all her intellectual output in that language, is still here, although she has left for New York, because the topics that support her “marketability” are local topics.

Which one is an emigrant: a programmer from Nizhny Novgorod working for a startup somewhere in Silicon Valley, or Kashin, interviewing Limonov from Switzerland for the Afisha (or alternatively, Gessen staying in New York and writing a book about the Chechen Tzarnaev family)? I think it’s the programmer, not Kashin—although what difference does it really make?

Which one is an emigrant: a design director of a Moscow studio working in Prague on orders from some Russian government structures, or these structures themselves? That designer in Prague feels their impatient breathing with his back: the deadline is nearing.

I also lived in a state of physical “emigration” in Kiev, but many of my not-too-close friends didn’t even notice that I was away. They kept communicating with me through social media, reading my texts about what was going on in Russia. We were even able to play our famous card game using a special internet service: in Kiev I would regularly make payments with my credit cards issued by Russian banks, and when I’m in Moscow I often pay with a card from Kiev. My money migrates back and forth, no matter where I am.

We just can’t get used to the fact that our physical presence in a particular location doesn’t really matter anymore for our work in cultural content, even for our consumption of goods, except for food. While in Kiev I knew all the Moscow rumors, and I’m sure Kashin gets them too, wherever he is. Sergei Parkhomenko from Echo of Moscow radio was broadcasting from Germany, again via Skype. When I was listening I couldn’t tell the difference.

The degree of convenience nowadays is pretty much the same here and “not here.” It’s just that different places are best suited for different things. It’s hard to be a controfagotto player if you live in a Provence village: the nearest major orchestra is kind of far away. And in Moscow it’s difficult to concentrate on writing a novel. So we can use different locations without relocating ourselves, without “emigrating:” a physical location has become something like clothes, an element of décor.

If, for example, Boris Akunin spoke at a rally on Bolotnaya Square via some kind of videolink from Provence, his speech would have the same effect on the audience: he was making some valid points, not just spitting saliva. In fact, Akunin’s wisdom is now available for anybody through his LiveJournal, that he maintains from I don’t even know where.

Now I wish that all those activities of the past year and the year before had happened in virtual space: at least they wouldn’t be able to lock people up for a little bruise on an elbow of a riot police officer.

This is how Gessen explained her decision to leave:

“Last year… I would say: ‘This is my home, let Putin leave, and I’m staying.’ I can work in Russia and I would. But I have three children. It’s one thing to raise them in a risky environment: in many respects it makes them more fit for life, and I’m glad my kids have that experience. It’s quite another thing to raise them in a hopeless environment. Now I’ve lost hope, and I have to take them out of here.”

Children are the ultimate argument in any debate. It’s not great when they go to school where they find out that Stalin was good and Christ was crucified by Jews. It’s also not too great when their mom or dad could be subjected to any kind of persecution at any time. The idiocy and dogmatism that flourishes in this land makes it extremely difficult to raise children in a proper way: children might think that something is wrong with their parents, that they are not like other people.

Sounds kind of weird, don’t you think? After all, these are our children, we are their parents, we have an opportunity to raise them properly anywhere in the world. The most important thing is to teach them foreign languages, so that they, like us, could be here and somewhere else at the same time. So that they could go not only to a Russian school, but also to a school somewhere in America; could read not only Russian books, but also, for instance, Chinese.

I am not saying that I’m staying, and let Putin leave. I’m just not sure that sitting here, in Moscow, in front of my computer, I’m entirely here: at this moment I’m looking at sites from five different countries, my editor from New York is sending corrections, my former Chinese friend is sending regards from a Geneva-Paris train.

As a matter of fact, I don’t even know where Putin is. When did you see Putin live for the last time? I haven’t seen him in a while. They say his daughters live abroad. Maybe he, just like Gessen, lost hope and decided to move closer to them? He could be in Switzerland now, hanging out with Kashin somewhere in Zurich, from where he holds his videoconferences and blasting his ministers. Maybe his spirit flows to the West through a Gazprom pipeline, and comes back in a container from Shanghai.

Maybe I left, and he stayed. Or could it be the other way round? Maybe we are both in Moscow. A human being now is like a snail: he himself is his only home.