Maxim Matusevich is one of those special authors who is working outside his native idiom. The fluidity of his characters’ thoughts feels both unique and natural. They are nuanced, feel real, but something we haven’t quite seen before. Originally from Leningrad, Mr. Matusevich has a particular academic interest in African history during the Cold War. He is a historian and director of Russian and Eastern European Studies program at Seton Hall University.
I have seen you mention “Saigon”, an underground café in Leningrad that was perhaps closely monitored by the KGB. Can you talk a bit about it?
Saigon was a peculiar place and it still looms large in the memories of the “last Soviet generation” from Leningrad. It was an inconspicuously looking coffeeshop, occupying the first floor of a building at the corner of Vladimirsky and Nevsky prospects. It didn’t even have a proper name and became known as “Saigon,” most likely in reference to the capital of South Vietnam, which was often portrayed in the Soviet press as a den of sin (which it actually was due to the influx of American troops and the French colonial legacy), associated with drugs and prostitution. This nickname underscored Saigon’s nonconformist vibe, its apparent disconnect from the Soviet everyday.
I was first introduced to Saigon as a teenager by my older friends from the Archaeological section at the Palace of Pioneers, which was another site of nonconformity. Saigon attracted all sorts of people – hippies, book collectors, artists, musicians, writers and poets, pickpockets, some druggies, local bums. It was rumored to be closely watched by the KGB, which it probably was.
To me, it was an almost magical place, where I could always count on meeting people who stood out – who were more interesting, better read, more creative, more spontaneous than your average Soviet. Saigon cultivated strangeness and eccentricity, it was steeped in a very particular St. Petersburg mystique, possessed of a distinct genius loci. In its otherworldliness, that seemingly drab Soviet coffeeshop came straight off the pages of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Andrei Belyi…
In the Soviet Union, we didn’t really have much of a “café culture,” certainly nothing on the par with Vienna or Paris or Berlin. But somehow Saigon, as shabby as it was, embodied that café culture atmosphere, and in a very powerful way. I suppose it was the case of scarcity generating intensity. People mostly hang out and sipped their espressos, which were surprisingly good. There was some alcohol but we didn’t really drink much, at least not the crowd that I was associated with – archeologists, poets, philosophers, theater people. The café had its celebrities – the creatives, those who did more than just hang out – musicians Boris Grebenschikov, Victor Tsoi, Sergei Kurekhin; artists Kirill Miller and Timur Novikov, others. Regular saigontsy gravitated towards the big names, boasted of their personal connections to the locally famed musicians, poets, and artists.
The Saigon era in Leningrad ended with the advent of Perestroika. The phenomenon of Saigon, I think, could only exist in a severely restricted society, where the limited supply of options for socializing and community building turned a bland Soviet café into an important social institution and the locus of counterculture. The moment the country opened up, the moment the restrictions were lifted, the need for Saigon evaporated and the denizens of this unusual place moved on with their lives – many relocated abroad, others attained national and even international fame, a surprising number of saigontsy discovered Orthodox Christianity and chose the path of religion, quite a few succumbed to alcohol and drugs. So that Leningrad Saigon is no more, but the memories linger. Recently a group of former saigontsy published [in Russian] a remarkable collection of memoirs and literary and artistic artefacts that pay homage to this informal institution, quite unique in the history of Russian and St. Petersburg culture: https://www.ozon.ru/context/detail/id/4796531/
A couple of years ago Terje Toomistu’s documentary “Soviet Hippies” was released. Were these people real dissidents? Were they honestly looking for peace and love?
My one foray deep into the world of Soviet hippies took place in the summer of 1984, when my friend and I hitch-hiked to the famous hippie encampment on the shores of the lake Gauja in Latvia. We stayed there for a few days and left just before the camp was raided by the police.
I wouldn’t call the hippies dissidents, they tended to be apolitical, even though their lifestyles and appearance presented an open challenge to the dominant Soviet norms and aesthetics. They tended to despise the regime, which they found boring and uncool. But I don’t remember anything outwardly political about their stance. They preferred to drift on the periphery of Soviet society and pretend that it didn’t exist.
True dissidents belonged to a different crowd, far better informed and more politically attuned. Many of them tended to be Jewish, some were committed Zionists. But embracing a political cause was not what the hippies did. They did not really want to reform the society, they simply wanted the society to leave them alone.
What interests you about Russian-African relations? How much time do you think the inner workings of the Kremlin are spending on hot zones like the Congo, where Russians are said to be working as mercenaries?
Having grown up as a Jew in the Soviet Union, I was particularly sensitive to the issues of identity and understood only too well what it actually meant to be and feel like a minority. In that regard, I always thought there were parallels between African diasporic experience and that of Russia’s Jews. On top of that, I have an interest in the history of the Cold War, in which Africa played such a prominent and sometimes defining role. In the course of my early research, I became convinced that the history of the Cold War cannot be properly understood without an examination of the agency of the so-called Third World, especially independent African states. In that regard, the relationship between the Soviet Union and postcolonial Africa is of great importance, because it revealed the limitations on the ability of the superpowers to impose their will on the developing nations.
Russia under Putin has been staging a comeback in Africa. Russia’s present engagements on the continent bear little resemblance to the Soviet adventures of a few decades earlier. Putin’s Russia has no ideology that it seeks to export. In the past, the Soviet Union presented itself to the developing world as the harbinger of social progress, but Russians under Putin have no such ambitions. It really is an elite undertaking that allows the oligarchs close to Putin to sell arms and mercenary services and engage in mineral resource extraction with no strings attached. In the process, they claim to uphold traditionalism (traditional gender roles, gay bashing, contempt for “political correctness”, etc.). Contrary to common Western fears, Russia is not “building an empire in Africa.” Russians are simply making a buck. At the same time, the new Russia, just like its Soviet predecessor, presents a challenge to the West’s liberal project, including in Africa.
You have written about racism, anti-racism, and American black and African issues in the Soviet Union. Do you see holdovers in any kind of Kremlin policy today?
The Soviets worked hard to present themselves as the “natural allies” of the oppressed. In pursuit of that goal they embarked on the vociferous antiracist campaigns – during the Scottsboro trials, in defense of Paul Robeson, Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, etc. As a result of these campaigns and the consistent antiracist rhetoric coming from Moscow, the Soviet Union had been able to generate some goodwill in Africa and among segments of African diaspora. However, I would argue, the Soviets never quite overcame the limitations of their own ideology. Strangely, the thousands of African students who came to the Soviet Union during its last three decades became not so much the guarantors of a political and metaphorical alliance between the USSR and Africa, but rather the agents of modernizing change and even political and cultural subversion.
The fact that the Soviet Union endlessly rallied in defense of the oppressed could on occasion elicit not sympathy but rather contempt. Those negative attitudes were often transferred onto the objects of the Soviet solidarity campaigns. It is not a coincidence that the arrival of Perestroika opened up the Pandora box of latent racism on the part of many Soviet citizens, including the educated classes. In the States (or elsewhere in the West) one gets a glimpse of this post-Soviet racism by observing the political behaviors and preferences by quite a few former Soviet citizens, who often end up voting for the right and far right parties and political movements. Sadly, this is true in the States as much as it is true in Germany or Israel… The reasons for this right wing drift are complicated, but the legacy of Soviet antiracist campaigns is certainly one of them.
In your non-academic writing, often the narrators swings in and out of the voice of different characters. What is the drive for this type of narrator?
Our current state of polarization has something to do with this desire to secure the absolute truth. I take the concept of truth very seriously and find some of the relativism of our times truly frightening. At the same time, I hope we can find a way to view people not as representatives of an idea but as people. When individuals turn into ideas they immediately cease being human and thus become either sacred or disposable. That’s what happens in revolutions. I am not a big fan of revolutionary upheavals, even when I happen to share some of the goals revolutions set out to achieve. I think some of these concerns have had an effect on the way I write my fiction. I make an effort not to be too judgmental. I try and resist the temptation of demonizing those whom I dislike or whose actions I disprove. It is easier said than done… in real life. But in fiction, I can try and achieve this moral goal.
What attracts you to writing about personal labors or dramas?
In a way, I come from a place that no longer exists. The name of the city where I was born has changed. Most of the adults who defined my childhood are gone and only left to me as memory. Being a historian makes me view the personal as part of a broader experience. It feels liberating and almost therapeutic to be able to reclaim the past that belongs not just to me but also to others. I’m part of the so-called “last Soviet generation,” its defining feature for me was this disorienting transition. I remember the day I got discharged from the army: it was late in May, I was on a train that carried me from a small provincial town back to Leningrad. The two seemingly endless years of service had ended and the future now seemed like one endless summer. I had no higher ambition than getting back home – to my beloved city, to my parents, to my girlfriend. But while I was in the service the invisible ground had shifted, it was a different country now and what seemed certain and soothingly permanent was truly no more.
Three years later I found myself delivering pizzas in Oklahoma, blasting away the oldies rock station on my car radio and trying not to dwell too much on a nagging nostalgia and the general puzzlement over such a dramatic change of a life plan that had never really existed. I think this immigration ordeal made me more attuned to my own family history. Being in the States, thousands of miles away from my parents, gave me the necessary distance to see them as individuals, which was something that as a child I had never even considered.
The war loomed large in our family legend (the siege of Leningrad, the evacuation, the escape from Stalingrad, the loss of loved ones). And so did the fear of the state, which, according to my father, scarred by his experiences during the postwar antisemitic campaigns, could turn on you on a dime. Throughout adulthood, my father was tormented by the moral dilemmas he had to face, by the compromises he was forced to make with his own conscience, by what he saw as his surrender to his own fear. I think about these issues too, even in relative comfort and safety of my American life. These moral dilemmas never end, they follow us no matter how hard we work on evading them – in the Soviet Union, in the United States, and elsewhere…