...here I am! I will not tire you, my reader, by describing the hardships I encountered on my journey…
-Lev Rubinstein, from one of his "Catalog Poems"
-Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
I read a touching essay by Masha Gessen on the New Yorker feed about Lev Rubinstein's life and unexpected death, age 76, as I was headed to bed on Saturday night. Rubinstein was hit by a drunken driver on a Moscow street, which seems implausible, if not suspicious. The incident is "under investigation." By whom?
Gessen and Rubinstein were friends, colleagues and survivors of the Soviet and Putin regimes. Both were outspoken opponents of Putin's repression and the war in Ukraine. Masha lives in the US now, but Rubinstein, unlike other endangered artists and dissidents, did not leave Moscow. He was a supporter of Navalny and eloquent in his antagonism to the "internal imperialism," of the Putin regime. Now he is dead. Masha is in New York. And so on and so on, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said.
Rubinstein began his writing life working in a library in Moscow. Using discarded catalog cards, he wrote a sentence on each one and numbered them in an order that made narrative sense, such as #82 in the quotation above. Later he "performed" these prose poems to live audiences. His courage is a lesson for silenced writers in "free" societies, such as ours, silenced for fear of dunning, shunning, death threats, or cancellation. We corrode our moral center by remaining silent when we hear about censorship, or self-censorship, and do not object.
Authoritarian constraint creeps slowly in unyielding increments. Let us call it the "creeping disease." First a book banning, then the cancellation of a lecture at a university, police everywhere, arrests. Friendships ended, or compromised by "disagreements," about what "side" we are on, or not, as if atrocity, seen and acknowledged, had a "side."
Some of us are so profoundly implicated in the war in the Middle East, for example, either by ancestry or direct connection, that we do not have the luxury of not paying attention, of not discussing, of not being concerned about our loved ones and the future of Palestine and Israel.
Lev Rubinstein drew solace from history and all he had endured. For many years he was certain that Soviet "slime" would never dissipate, and then it did. Glasnost, an opening into heart and light as a vigorous opposition surfaced in Russia, the Berlin Wall came down, and the arts and artists burst open. And then the clamp down, another round of trouble: Putin's repression and war mongering in Chechnya and Ukraine.
Though most of us are protected from its effects, America is not immune to slime. It is in our face and on our screens every day. We may live in privileged enclaves blind to troubles that impact others far away, or those near and dear, but the slime will eventually swallow us all if we do not resist. Indeed, we cannot take anything for granted this election year, including our very American sense of entitlement to a sense of safety, and prosperity.
Lev Rubinstein, Moscow, 1947-2024, RIP