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Feature Story August 24, 2003
 
Jesus Ate Their Brains!
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 5 of 5
 
This is the sort of inane, formulaic reversal that Graham Greene turned into a lucrative literary career, the sort of twist people who haven't read Nietzsche associate with him; but it's totally unworthy of a great novel like We. It wasn't even a good guess about what was to come. Stalin was not the Pharisees, the NKVD was not the Roman Army, and the massacred intellectuals were not Christ. These quick cuts to Calvary blur the real scene, the killing floors and torture rooms of Stalin's police.

Bulgakov's protagonist in Master and Margarita also comes dangerously close to Christ-hood and martyrdom himself, but Bulgakov had the one charm proof against martyrdom: he was funny. All around the rather pathetic Master swirl characters much stronger, braver, smarter and funnier than he. Besides, in reality the author Bulgakov asked Stalin for martyrdom and was offered a job in the theatre instead. In refusing Bulgakov's demand for immediate Golgothification, Stalin unknowingly performed his one great service for Russian literature.

Yerofeev used the same saving comic talent to lighten his hero's martyrdom in the late Soviet novella Moskva-Petushki: his Christ-self is a drunken swine. A martyr, yes -- but at least a drunk, selfish one, a martyr to the drink. You can hear Yerofeev's resentment against the dull, required stations of the cross he leads his protagonist through, as if the authors themselves were tramping to Calvary only because they had nowhere else to go.

When the Soviet state went out of business, one essential component of the Christ plot vanished: there was nobody to play the Roman soldiers any more. So we can say that Yeltsin & co. did one great thing: they made it impossible to do the Russian Christ without making a joke of yourself.

In the most dramatic proof of this, Solzhenitsyn came home and tried to shoulder the old rugged Cross -- on a talk show. Yup, like Christ's public-access program on South Park. It bombed -- just like Christ's on South Park.

Which was damned lucky -- because Solzhenitsyn's worldly success, his fame, was one of the most dangerous elements of the Christ cargo-cult. He was not only a saint, he was famous and rich. He made martyrdom seem like a good career option, even to weedy poets who wouldn't have lasted a week in the camps.

That's the trouble with the Christ story: it's the original template for that famous Russian nihilist slogan, "The worse, the better." Christ is the tar baby; the more you hit him, the stronger he gets. And that makes people imagine there'll be some compensation for their tears, some return on all the suffering they've invested. By that reckoning, Russia should be in for the biggest dividends in history. But there's no such return on suffering -- not the big sufferings anyway. There may be rewards for suffering here and there -- American college kids retailing their bad childhoods for bragging rights or preferred admission to law school. But these rewards tend to go to those who are already good at grabbing things, and already living among the wealthy.

The really massive sufferings tend to be quiet, uninteresting, and ignored. Take the seven-million-or-so dead Ukrainian peasants from Stalin's artificial famine; no one remembers them, or ever has. Or ever will. They weren't interesting to the intellectuals.

It's like that line from the Bible -- one of the few honest lines in the whole book: "To him who has much, more shall be given. And to him who has little, it shall be taken away." So, after 70 years of carrying the cross, the Russian intelligensia got exactly nothing from the death of the Soviet state except marginalization, and the ignominious struggle for cash.

Another salutary shock was provided by the return of the Church. Nothing eliminates Christ-envy like having his actual Church back in place, reminding you every day of its venal, witless, reactionary, grimy habits. We should all chip in generously to the priests with cashboxes who haunt the Metro perekhods. The more bells they buy, the more Russian writers will wake up hungover on Sunday mornings cursing the whole gaudy Christian pantomime once and for all, allowing it to trickle down to the fools, the majority, where it belongs.

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