Top: World's first 360-degree Panorama of Ushguli, Svaneti, Georgia, Feb 24/2009, from 12 separate photos...

Saturday, 9 August 2008

the W()RD: Does this mean war?

I realise that "war" is an unpopular word. Also, being far from my home in the Republic of Georgia at the moment, all I can do - like most of the world - is watch or read the news about fierce current clashes between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. I'm not even going to try to write my feelings about the whole thing here and now, except to say that I'll be returning to Georgia as planned later in August, regardless. It's home.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

the W()RD: Not quite 90

"For years I have with reluctant heart withheld from publication this already completed book: my obligation to the living outweighed that to the dead. But now that State Security has seized the manuscript, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately." - the Author

That's as accurate a recollection I can make of the quote on the back cover of my paperback copy of The Gulag Archipelago I by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn - the book is far from me as I write this. He died of heart failure in his native Russia on Monday, August 4, several months before he was to turn 90. His funeral was yesterday.

I was introduced to the Gulag trilogy at age 14 by my Social studies teacher in Grade 9 in a Canadian school; he died young of cancer several years after that. I started reading it at 17, and though it's heavy going indeed, a through investigation of the history of the USSR's "Corrective Labour Camps" system in the 20th century, I finished it as well, and have read it through several times over the years. It shocked me into awareness that there are places in the world so different from where I live that they might as well be other planets, such might be one's struggle to understand their ways. I determined to visit this place where such a culture of unspoken terror had reigned for so long, to see what its survivors were like. As I was preparing for this, I found and read more of Solzhenitsyn's work - indeed, began collecting all of it, in English and then in Russian. Cancer Ward, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, From Under the Rubble, The Red Wheel decalogy, The Oak and the Calf and the rest, they all found their way to me. I did manage to visit the USSR once, as it was collapsing, literally, in August 1991. My photographs of the coup against Gorbachev are to be found on this blog under "USSR". And I moved to Russia for 7 years in September 1992 before carrying on to Azerbaijan and then Georgia.

Visiting Moscow from my St Petersburg home base, I heard that the great Solzhenitsyn was due to arrive in the capital the next day, sometime in late 1993. He had returned to the country which had exiled him after his Nobel Prize win in the 1970s, having said that he would do so once his work, formerly forbidden and distributed only in illegal photocopied samizdat versions, was published openly. A long, slow train journey was to take him home from Russia's east coast some 10 time zones away, with frequent stops along the way to meet people and begin the slow process of reacquainting himself with his motherland. I longed to see him even from a distance in the crowd, but work called me back to Petersburg and I missed his arrival, one of my great regrets in life.

Later, a biography of the great man reduced him to human proportions and allowed me to see him in a more balanced light without diminishing any of his literary greatness. His works continue to stand the test of time, as both art and revelation of the society in which they are set. It does seem to me, however, that he never really found his place in the Russia which welcomed him back - a very different place from the one which had deported and stripped him of Soviet citizenship some decades earlier. He seems to have been quite a supporter of Vladimir Putin in his last years, but the "prophet" and his home had diverged much in their separation.

Solzhenitsyn remains a literary hero to me, the person whose writings sent me to the USSR, in whose countries I have now lived for 16 years. I am ruined for life in the West, though I visit it periodically, as I am currently doing. The largest country in the world continues to change from what it was without ceasing to be as enigmatic as ever. Aleksandr Isayevich, you were the means used to change my life's course.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Carson Lake, Alberta, Canada, September 2005

More from that beautiful camping weekend. The weather was all that I could have asked for as a photographer.