One stone

A Western Buryat scholar friend of mine, now sadly deceased, told me a story that changed a great deal of how I thought about Soviet and Russian history. It was the story of a stone.

The stone came at the end, so let me get back to the beginning. The hero of the tale was this scholar’s uncle, who had held some post in Moscow. During Stalinism’s endless torments, he had gotten on a list of people marked for arrest. He got wind of this, and spent months more or less couch surfing, with no regular address where he could be found.

Then, one cold, damp, icy day, he spotted the head of the Moscow City Politcom, roughly equivalent to the mayor of the city, easing into a black Chaika limo in downtown Moscow. He couldn’t contain his rage. He picked up a stone he found in the gutter and threw it at the car.

The driver saw the stone fly at the car, but not who threw it. Yet suspicions landed on my friend’s uncle. He denied everything. The driver insisted the minute they found the stone, they’d know the truth.

But the stone was never found. The man walked away. He survived the purges. Miraculously.

I found this story astonishing. I understood the emotion of the gesture–the motherfuckers had ruined this man’s life for nothing, with impunity, and had destroyed the lives of his friends, relatives, colleagues–yet still. Still! You’re on the lam, why are you picking up stones and throwing them?

The gesture might have ended his life, but it would never had ended Stalinism. Yet he threw the stone, just the same.

Our protests, as individuals, are tiny, barely registering, quickly forgotten. To think our stone will change the world in an instant is arrogant madness.Yet what are we, if we can’t do whatever is at hand? If we can’t give voice to some tiny part of our suffering?

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