Thinking about your mountain of Italian marble, both its physical mass and the historical burden we’ve asked it to bear. An image for you in response, something playful, perhaps an antidote. Recently at the Imperial War Museum in London I spent some time with a newsreel of the battle of Stalingrad, including an image of the famous Barmaley fountain, of six children dancing around a crocodile. You might have seen the picture by the Soviet war photographer Evzerikhin, which has also made its way into pop culture – Clockwork Orange and other films use it as a symbol of innocence amidst war. It’s didactic and kitsch of course, and we’re talking about Stalingrad, and come to think of it, the story that it’s modeled on is a Russian poem by Chukovsky that’s sort of racist: “Little children, for nothing in this world, do not go to Africa.” Maybe it’s not an antidote after all.
Once out of the imposed distance of conflict of eastern Ukraine, it only takes a day or so to go, in this case, from Mariupol to Dnipropetrovsk, a flight via Vienna to London, then Washington DC, and soon New York. I’m presently traveling by train along the Northeast corridor, looking at the decaying backside of North Philadelphia, the miles of row homes, factories and warehouses.
Here there’s the summer overgrowth of English ivy and the tree of heaven, the ailanthus, an urban weed tree everywhere in the world. I saw an abundance of ailanthus in Mauripol in the old town, also filled with elegant, shabby pre-revolutionary houses. This neighborhood was the city’s old commercial center, decayed because of the proximity to the then-new factories and the toxic air, overtaken by industry. And I’m reminded of something else – the Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, and Jews who left Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often ended up here in eastern Pennsylvania, in the coal towns of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and the steel town of Bethlehem, where my father’s family landed after fleeing Ukraine in the 1890s.