By Nicky Reid aka Comrade Hermit
Exile in Happy Valley
In my lazy little corner of rural Central Pennsylvanian Trump country there has always been a sizeable minority of Russian emigres. I honestly have zero idea why but at some point, some lonely Soviet refugee found this bucolic blemish on the map and decided to call it home and an exile community was born. Growing up, I always found the Russian kids at my school to be fascinating, especially the girls. With their knock-off high heel boots and their thrift store fur coats, I had never seen other poor people look so glamorous. They seemed to exist in their own little world inside of our little world. I have vivid memories of standing behind these young DIY debutantes in the lunch line and closing my eyes while I secretly listened to them speak to each other in that mysteriously beautiful language. The words seemed to float to the ground like leaves dancing from the branches of a birch tree.
One girl fascinated me more than the rest. She was a couple grades below me, and her name was Violetta. She looked a bit like a young Anna Karina only her porcelain skin was marked by these mysterious scars. Somehow this disfigurement only made her more beautiful to me, like a cracked porcelain doll. Maybe it was that she looked the way I felt on the inside. Growing up trans I often felt like a broken girl inside a male nesting doll, but to me these imperfections only made her more perfect. I used to sing that old Pavement song “Loretta’s Scars” softly to myself, changing the lyrics to suit my lesbian loneliness- “How can I, how can I, make my body shed for you? How can I make my body shed around your metal scars, Violetta’s scars!” I never spoke a word to her. I don’t know why.
Somehow Violetta’s scars came to embody the entire Russian spirit to me. She wore those painfully permanent objects like accessories that gave her glamour a deep sadness but also a resilient strength. The Russian people have always carried their tragic history with them like crosses without ever lowering their chins. I found all of this to be fascinating, but my other classmates didn’t seem to share my fascination with these people and instead treated them like lepers. When I would ask my friends why they hated these people so damn much when they never seemed to be the least bit interested in getting to know them their response was always blank stares. They seemed perplexed upon frustration as to why I would even ask such a question. I never got a straight answer out of a single one of them. At a certain point it became disturbingly clear to me that they had no idea why they despised these total strangers and perhaps even more frightening, they didn’t even seem to want to know why. There was just something about Violetta’s scars that frightened them, and they took a perverse kind of pride in this fear. It had somehow come to define them.
It was only later that I came to realize that my colleagues had been carefully programmed to hate these people by an American culture machine that engaged in an aggressive campaign to demonize all things and all people Russian. In every mainstream movie and TV show that addresses their malign existence, even after the Cold War, Russians are consistently presented as the enemy, a race of duplicitous villains who hate America and freedom for no other reason than because they do, because evil defines their national character without meaning. Growing up, I watched Sylvester Stallone and the Brat Pack murder scores of these people like they weren’t even human, just soulless props to highlight the blood-spattered glory of American exceptionalism with their primitive inferiority. Their slaughter was comedy.
And all the politicians and history books seemed to take their cues directly from the action movies. There was never any reason provided to explain the deep-seated hostility of our eastern adversaries. There was no Western invasion to strangle their revolution against Czarist tyranny in the cradle as Winston Churchill so eloquently put it. There were no Jupiter missiles on Khrushchev’s borders beckoning him to Cuba. They just hated us because we were free and they were evil, and we should hate them too, even the ones who escaped communist tyranny, even their children.
Ironically, considering the sadly real homophobia of the Orthodox Church, the only reason this high-level big business-big government propagandistic synergy didn’t work on my supple young mind was probably because I was Queer. I felt like an irredeemable outcast in my own community, and this often led me to secretly root for the “bad guys” in the movies. Nazis were such cunts even if they did have cooler guns and uniforms, but the Soviets made sense. What was their big evil plan, to kill the rich and make everyone poor? Fuck it, I already was. The people beneath the red star always seemed more like anti-villains to me. Like Magneto in the X-Men comics I read, they were just trying to get even. I wanted to get even too.
This led me to take the opposite route as my next-door neighbors. I lionized and fetishized the Russians which was really just its own kind of ignorance. I became a tankie communist in my early twenties and found myself rooting for tyrants like Putin because at least he was getting one over on the real evil empire. I had to grow up a little before I could realize that at the end of the day Russians were just people like anyone else and that their leaders were just tyrants with more reasonable excuses for their tyranny than ours. As Mikhail Bakunin, one of the greatest minds in Russian history, once observed, people aren’t much happier to be beaten just because you call the stick you beat them with ‘the people’s stick.’ So, I turned to anarchism, largely inspired by Russian renegades like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Makhno, and chose to oppose tyranny, wherever I found its looming shadow. But I never forgot Violetta’s scars.