Monday, March 05, 2007

Play We Shall Not

In his latest novel, The House of Meetings, Martin Amis makes some interesting points about the different courses Germany and Russia have taken in the wake of the horrors they perpetrated in the first half of the 20th century. His narrator, an embittered gulag survivor, notes that Germany has been quicker to redeem itself, while Russia has languished:
Germany isn't withering away, as Russia is. Rigorous atonement--including, primarily, not truth commissions and state reparations but prosecutions, imprisonments, and, yes, executions, sacramental suicides, crack-ups, self-lacerations, the tearing of hair--reduces the weight of the offense. Or what is atonement for? What does it do? In 2004, the German offense is a very slightly lighter thing than it was. The Russian offense, in 2004, is still the same offense.

Yes, yes, I know, I know. Russia's busy. There's that other feature of national life: permanent desperation. We will never have the "luxury" of confession and remorse. But what if it isn't a luxury? What if it's a necessity, a dirt-poor necessity? The conscience, I suspect, is a vital organ. And when it goes, you go.
Indeed, another character later describes how the greatest trauma the gulag visited upon him was discovering that he no longer had the will to play. It wasn't the ability to love, but the ability to play, to enjoy sexual pleasure he lost.

Shortly after, the narrator reminds us that the ancient Jews withheld their ability to play while in captivity:
As the Babylonians were leading the Jews into captivity they asked them to play their harps. And the Jews said, "We shall work for you, but play we shall not." That's what they were saying in 1936, and that's what they're saying now. We will work for you, but we're not going to fuck for you anymore. We are not going to go on doing it, making people. Making people to be set before the indifference of the state. We are not going to play.
The point Amis makes is a sobering one, and it's one borne out by the facts. From the CIA World Factbook, here are some estimated statistics from 2006 for Russia:
Population growth rate: -0.37%
Birth rate: 9.95 births/1,000 population
Death rate: 14.65 deaths/1,000 population
So as Amis also mentions, Russia's death-rate surpassed its birthrate in 1992, forming what the narrator describes on a graph as a "Russian Cross."

President Vladimir Putin even recently offered Russian women money to have a second child, but apparently, they aren't buying it. Last May Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir wrote
Cash for babies is the Kremlin's offer to women in its latest bid to reverse a population decline that threatens to leave large swaths of Russia virtually uninhabited within 50 years.

President Vladimir Putin last week defined the crisis as Russia's most acute problem, and promised to spend some of the country's oil profits on efforts to relieve it. He ordered parliament to more than double monthly child support payments to 1,500 rubles (about $55) and added that women who choose to have a second baby will receive 250,000 rubles ($9,200), a staggering sum in a country where average monthly incomes hover close to $330.
Women interviewed for the article say Putin can't comprehend their lives:
"A child is not an easy project, and in this world a woman is expected to get an education, find a job, and make a career," says Svetlana Romanicheva, a student who says she won't consider babies for at least five years. She hopes to have one child, but says a second would depend on her life "working out very well." As for Putin's offer, she says "it won't change anything."
Consider that the birth rate to maintain a population is 2.4 children per woman. In 2004, Russia's was 1.17. And Russia has one of the world's highest abortion rates. Combine these figures with an unusually high peacetime death rate and, consequently, Russia is losing 700,000 to 800,000 citizens per year.

Play we shall not, indeed. For those already knowledgeable in the history of the Russian gulag and its arguable impact on contemporary Russian society, Amis's House of Meetings may present little that is new in the way of historical information. For those of us not as intimate with those details, however, it proves a compelling introduction.

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