March 22, 2019

Centuries of Slush

Centuries of Slush
A thawing river in Moscow. Katrina Keegan

O, Thaw! What a glorious time of year in Russia! The hope of spring hangs in the air between yesterday and tomorrow’s snowstorms; brave young women dare to wear nude tights in front of babushki in puffer coats; dvorniki (a fairly untranslatable word for the janitors or yardmen of the outdoors) trade their shovels for brooms, attempting to sweep puddles away.

So much do those 33℉ puddles tug our heartstrings that it’s no wonder everyone’s favorite period of Soviet history is Khrushchev's Thaw. Thinking about poetry readings, private apartments, and the relative (no one called it Khrushchev’s Summer) lack of oppression, even I, born more than 30 years after the fact in the US, feel nostalgic. Who doesn’t love the thaw?

Only the entire Russian literary canon.

It all started with Pushkin (doesn’t everything?), who wrote in his poem “Autumn” that “the thaw bores me; the stench, the mud – I’m sick with spring.” Lermontov, Tolstoy and Gorky, carrying the torch of Russian literature through a hundred springs, all associated the thaw with unpleasant fogginess; in his story “The Witch,” Chekhov writes of “tears trembling on trees” and “a dark slurry of mud and melting snow” that, “in a word,” was the thaw. 
And don’t get Dostoyevsky started. Granted, he does have a knack for making everything seem gloomy, but he has some particularly choice words for the thaw:

“And still the thaw continued; a despondent, warm, rotton wind whistled through the streets, carriages schlepped through the mud [...] Pedestrians roved the sidewalks as a bleak and wet crowd. (The Idiot, Part I, Chapter XII)

“I forgot to say that the day was damp, dim, with the beginning of the thaw and a warm wind, capable of trying the nerves even of an elephant.” (The Adolescent, Part III, Chapter IV)

“The weather was terrible: it was the thaw, snow lie all around, it was raining [...] ‘What sort of voyage is this,’ thought Mr. Golyadkin, looking at the weather, ‘this is death for all…’” (The Double, Chapter XII). 

Just to clear up the elephant in the room: don’t worry, not everyone in Russia dies every spring. 

Of course, not all of the Russian literary giants hated the thaw. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev used thaw in its political sense to praise the early policies of liberal Alexander II, who was crowned in 1855, after the death of his conservative father, Nikolai I. He only beat Ilya Ehrenburg to it by a century: it was Ehrenburg’s 1954 novel, The Thaw (don’t worry if you haven’t read it, literature guru Dmitry Bykov said it’s bad) that informally named the Soviet era. 

But maybe Tyutchev was actually getting ahead of himself by a century. After all, his snarky contemporary, the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, called Alexander II’s policies slush. Indeed, the people weren’t pleased. About ten years later, assassination attempts on the tsar started, and in 1881 succeeded. (Notably, this era in Russian history gifted the world the notion of terrorism. So there’s that.) 

Naming political periods after annually recurring events does carry a certain inherent danger. Whether announced by a poet in 1855, a writer in 1954, or a rock group in 1990, Russia just keeps seeming to thaw, only to get snowed on all over again. 

Of course, that doesn’t stop anyone from reminiscing about thaws of the past or hoping for thaws in the future. Whatever writers may say, there is clearly a sense of revival and hope that draws people again and again to the idea of a long-awaited thaw. But next time you step in a cold puddle or some half-frozen mud, know that Dostoyevsky gives you his blessing to say “dam...p sh...lush!”

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