Exile

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Yves here. It must be impossible to understand fully what it means to be an exile unless it’s happened to you. If you had a peripatetic history, being unable to return to a place you enjoyed might not be so painful, except perhaps the stigma, since you night not be terribly attached to anywhere.

Not to denigrate Helmer’s sense of loss, but I am acutely aware that you really can never go back. I haven’t revisited any of the many places I grew up because they were one thing back then and are something very different now, almost certainly diminished, and I’m fine with my memories. Even going back to places I knew a bit as an adult, like the part of London in which I lived for four months in the 1980s, it’s superficially tonier and yet sterile. I like my old version better. Maybe I’m just getting old in a bad way, or maybe I am accurately measuring the march of neoliberalism and widening wealth disparity.

But even so, I always have an option….which Helmer does not.

By John Helmer who has been the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to have directed his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

The problem with living in exile is the meaning of the word. If you’re in exile, you mean you are forever looking backwards, in geography as well as in time. You’re not only out of place; you’re out of time — yesterday’s man.

Ovid, the Roman poet who was sent into exile from Rome by Caesar Augustus, for offences neither Augustus nor Ovid revealed, never stopped looking back to Rome. His exile, as Ovid described it, was “a barbarous coast, inured to rapine/stalked ever by bloodshed, murder, war.” In such a place or state, he said, “writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark.”

The word itself, exsilium in Roman law, was the sentence of loss of citizenship as an alternative to loss of life, capital punishment. It meant being compelled to live outside Rome at a location decided by the emperor. The penalty took several degrees of isolation and severity. In Ovid’s case, he was ordered by Augustus to be shipped to the northeastern limit of the Roman empire,  the Black Sea town called Tomis; it is now Constanta, Romania. Ovid’s last books, Tristia (“Sorrows”) and Epistulae ex Ponto (“Black Sea Letters”), were written from this exile, which began when he was 50 years old, in 8 AD, and ended when he died in Tomis nine years year later, in 17 AD.

In my case I’ve been driven into exile more than once. The current one is lasting the longest. This is the one from Moscow, which began with my expulsion by the Foreign Ministry on September 28, 2010.  The official sentence is Article 27(1) of the law No. 114-FZ — “necessary for the purposes of defence capability or security of the state, or public order, or protection of health of the population.” The reason, a foreign ministry official told an immigration service official when they didn’t know they were being overheard, was: “Helmer writes bad things about Russia.”

In Washington, DC, on November 5, 1980, when my second exile began, the sentence was less severe. It started on the morning after Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency by a vote landslide. I was going to my office in the New Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House, when I was obliged to run a gauntlet of jeering Reaganites who had gathered outside the revolving doors of the entrance. Looking at my long hair, beard, and unconventional blue-denim suit, one of the crowd shouted in my ear: “People like you should get out! You won’t be allowed here any longer.”  The sentence was clear; the offence against the law less so. But government in Washington was more law-abiding then than it is today: it took Reagan’s men six months before they were able to finalise the paperwork to rid themselves of me.

At the time, and still, Washington has been a place of exile for many public figures and officials on the run from the countries where they had done a good deal more to their local caesars than Ovid had done to Augustus. Berlin had been like that, too; that is West Berlin, before the Wall came down in 1989.

I had been invited by the German government in Bonn for an official visit to teach my counterparts in the German Chancellery how the US Office of Management and Budget did its business, and how American know-how ought to be translated into German. After briefings on the first day in Berlin, my government guide asked me what I should like to see in the evening. I said: “Take me to a place where people look like me.” He did. The place was a cabaret café  called Exil. It was filled with people like me.

The restaurant Exil at Berlin-Kreuzberg's Paul-Lincke-Ufer 44a. There is still a restaurant but it is now named Horvath, the second most common name in Hungary.

Germany today isn’t a shadow of what West Berlin was before the Wall came down.

Before then, for over several hundred years the French, British and Russians – over two millennia, if you count the Romans — have never broken the Germans by military occupation as thoroughly as the Americans have in seventy-seven years. So when the Wall came down and the unification proceeded, the US occupation of Germany became total.  Just how unopposed is clear from the conduct of the new chancellor in Berlin, Olaf Scholz. On Washington’s demand, he has made state policy of race hatred and war towards the Russians for the first time in the history of the Social Democratic Party (since 1863); for the second time since the National Socialist Party (1920).

Though we continue to look the same – long hair, beard, denim suit — I’ve taken voluntary exile from the Germans. This is after my German publisher and translator recently tried to insert German qualifiers into my plain English reporting on the war in the Ukraine. Then he decided he should equivocate between who were the Nazis in World War II, and who are the Nazis in the present war. Ein historischer Karneval (“a carnival of history”) he called this.  When I objected, he said he didn’t understand. If he was telling the truth about that, I said there was no point in my saying more. I ordered the removal and liquidation of every word in German he has been publishing by me for the past two years.

Rereading Ovid’s Tristia from his Black Sea exile two thousand years ago, the saddest part is the grovelling he felt obliged to show towards Augustus in the hope he would be pardoned and allowed to return to Rome. “Little book –,” Ovid opened the Tristia on the first line, “no I don’t begrudge it to you – you’re off to the City/without me, going where your only begetter is banned!/On your way, then – but penny-plain as befits an exile’s/ sad offering , and my present life.”

For remedy with the emperor, Ovid tried litigating: “I never fostered armed opposition,/my exile was earned by mere naivety”. He even tried buttering up Augustus, telling him about his wife, the scheming empress Livia: “I pray that the City’s grateful/ love may ever embrace you  as you deserve/; that Livia  your consort/ may grow old with you  (she deserved/no other husband; without her, a bachelor  existence/ should have been yours; whom else/could you have married?)”.

Left, a marble bust of Ovid as a younger man in Rome; right, a facial reconstruction from marble portraits of Caesar Augustus by Alessandro Tomasi.

Ovid was not prepared to accept that Augustus had punished him to make an example to others of the risk of the offence or of lèse-majesté – “a product/ of my youth”, Ovid wrote, “not a good joke, but a joke.” But through all of the Tristia and for several more years, he continued to hope that if he kept quiet what exactly had been his offence to the emperor and kept begging for forgiveness, Augustus might relent.

The longer this failed to materialise, the longer Ovid’s indictment continued of the Black Sea coast as a resort for civilized people. Until recently this had been improving; it stopped when the installation of US nuclear missiles at Deveselu, west of Constanta, has made the country the target for nuclear devastation for the first time in its history.  In Ovid’s opinion, he wouldn’t be sorry to see it go.

There have been very clear warnings from Moscow to Constanta  about that. To illustrate, there is also the old Russian proverb – Бей своих, чтоб чужие боялись, “beat your own people so that strangers will be afraid of you.” When Augustus meant that for Ovid, the poet didn’t understand. In the villages and between the clans of old Russia, it meant demonstrations of prowess at force in order to postpone and deter having to use the real thing. In Constanta now they are obliged to watch the real thing less than 400 kilometres, as the rocket flies, from Odessa in the north and Sevastopol to the east.

Modern communications, especially internet systems like email, Skype and Zoom, mean that exile isn’t the punishment it was once cracked up to be. Neither for the victims as examples nor for their audience.   Imagine what the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s exile  from Russia — to Frankfurt in 1974, then Zurich, then Cavendish, Vermont, until he returned to Moscow in 1994 — might have been like if he had podcasted every week to the motherland, and if his books and essays were transmitted by Kindle to every desk-top, tablet or smart phone in Russia. The new technology means that exile nowadays is only a personal punishment. It has lost its deterrence value.

Many Russians who don’t write for a living but steal, take voluntary exile. The biggest of these thieves sail to exile on their own boats and airplanes. At least they did until the US Government began to seize some of these boats at their moorings. As far away from civilization as Fiji they haven’t been safe.  But Russian robbers can moor their boats safely in Israel. The latest Russian arrivals to wash up in Tel Aviv – Anatoly Chubais, the robber of the state electricity conglomerate UES and then the state technology investment company Rusnano; and his protégé Alexei Kudrin, the former deputy prime minister and current state auditor, aren’t known to have boats. Kudrin says he is meeting Chubais and others in Israel for medical reasons, and plans to return to Moscow.

Left, Anatoly Chubais; right, Alexei Kudrin.

For the time being their exile is voluntary. Chubais and Kudrin can return; I cannot. They are safe from Article 27(1) of the law No. 114-FZ — “necessary for the purposes of defence capability or security of the state, or public order, or protection of health of the population.”

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48 comments

  1. Wukchumni

    My dad exited stage left in Czechoslovakia in the late 40’s and his mother had been told by the Communists that he was shot and killed attempting to escape, and what did she know about him leaving the country, and to add insult to injury he was tried in absentia and sentenced to death for treason-his variant being of the vamoose variety.

    He had to wait 25 years for the smoke to clear before he could go back to his homeland as an American tourist.

    Reply
  2. Peter VE

    “beat your own people so that strangers will be afraid of you.”
    That reminds me of this scene from Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye.

    Reply
  3. Carolinian

    I live two blocks away from where I grew up–the salmon returning to its place of origin, hopefully not to lay eggs and croak. I have taken a couple of long trips to Europe and in each began to feel intensely homesick for America. Perhaps a nation is like your parents. They are a part of you whether you approve of them or not.

    Supposedly the Romans considered exile a fate almost or indeed worse than death. Living in the center of the ancient world must have been heady stuff.

    Reply
    1. polar donkey

      I did peace corps in Tonga. Some of my fellow peace corps volunteers were on an island that had a prison. During the day, prisoners just walked around the island. Many prisoners liked to hangout with peace corps volunteers. Volunteers didn’t see the stigma the prisoners had to carry. All the free Tongans knew who the prisoners were, so the prisoners were basically shunned and had been removed from their families and village. At night the prisoners went back to the jail to sleep and eat. A prison with no bars or fences was an alien concept for the volunteers. It apparently worked until deported Tongans from the California penal system arrived. Tongans didn’t know what to do with those guys.

      Reply
      1. Revenant

        This is how the gaol in the Solomons worked on Gizo. The prisoner (singular) got a key, had to be in by curfew.

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    2. Joe Well

      Indeed, living in a major metro in the US is some heady stuff. Each one of them is the home of the absolute ultra vanguard of some area of human achievement, weather that be engineering the genome or engineering financial fraud. It’s a rush being in such a concentration of talented and committed people, and to see into the future in a place where the future is unevenly distributed in William Gibson’s words.

      If you’ve lived for long in one of these places, you feel the loss once you’re away for long enough, which might be a couple years, after you’re done relaxing and living it up at a fraction of what you used to pay for everything, once you’ve forgotten the anxiety that clings to such places.

      Which is why they can charge so much to live there, even in these times of the plague.

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      1. Carolinian

        I lived in NYC for awhile back in the 70s and yes it’s glamorous but also being a subway rat is not the best of lifestyles. You need to be rich to be at ease living there–or perhaps young–and among the young and hopefuls there was an element of self convincing I thought.

        Plus these days many of the things that were exclusive to big cities–access to art films for example–no longer are. I spent many an hour at the Carnegie Hall Cinema.

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        1. John

          This sparked a memory. I lived in New York City for a few years when I was in my 20s. Leaving for the green of the countryside, I said I would only move back were I ever wealthy enough to ignore the petty inconveniences such as being a subway rat. Hasn’t happened; can’t say I would do so now if I had the means.

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  4. AJ

    And yet somehow, here we sit while the cleverly disguised Oligarchs of the USA rule from the desk of the Oval Office and print from the press of the Washington Post in an effort to support the Oligarchs of Ukraine. Let’s not pretend they’re doing anything other than taking care to enrich other Oligarchs. The world is, has been, and will continue to be, ruled by the wealthy who will always take care to protect other wealthy people. It just happens that in this case the wealthy Russians have fallen out of style.

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  5. The Rev Kev

    In a way we are all exiles and by that I mean from our youth. You go back to where you grew up and though it is the same, it is different and the proportions not quite right. But more to the point, can we really get into the mind of that young person? We are not that person anymore and may not have that much in common anymore. You can even hold the toys and schoolwork from our youth but it no longer means the same anymore. As the saying goes, we can’t go back. But for those that have to leave home for a coupla years and then go back, the break is more jarring.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      I spent a good deal of the 1980’s in exile in search of aged round metal discs-all in first world countries, and most of my recollection of those places are all stuck in time, not dissimilar to a WW2 vet who gave a Hershey’s chocolate bar to a street urchin in France, and still thinks it was that way in 1980 in his mind, never having gone back.

      Things have changed demonstrably in Europe since then, but not in my memories.

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      1. John

        Ah yes, the Heraclitean dilemma.if dilemma it be. Or as Thomas Wolfe put it You Can’t Go home again.

        Reply
    2. Alyosha

      I watched Brat (the russian movie) again this weekend. I don’t think I’ve seen it since it was new and I was in Petersburg. In my memory Petersburg of the late 90’s is gritty but not as gritty as the film, and in watching it I realized that yes it was that gritty. I doubt I’d recognize the city anymore because I can’t imagine that it’s still that harsh and gritty. Nor was this a matter of where they chose to film, given that there’s a recurring location that I used to frequent.

      Aside, it really is an excellent movie that captures a lot of “Russia” in a really organic way. And i mean that beyond the 90’s Russia of collapse. The Russians with Attitudes podcast did a deep review of the films which is worth listening to if anyone decides to watch the movie (on Amazon). It was the cult Russian movie of the late 90’s. For good reason and is well worth the time of western audiences to get a bit more understanding of how a generation plus of Russians have come to view the world. There’s a nearly prophetic bit of dialogue during the party scene as well.

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    3. MarkT

      Re going back: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley.

      Reply
    4. Dave in Austin

      Faulkner was only half-right when he said “You can never go home again.” You can never really leave. And as I get old I revisit it more in my dreams.

      Reply
    5. howseth

      “You can even hold the toys and schoolwork from our youth”

      I can remember sitting on the floor with my army of little toy soldiers, (not sure what age I was – 9 or 10, 11?)
      And realizing the thrill was gone – the internal fantasy of those battles commanding my soldiers was missing – they remained just toy soldiers on the linoleum floor

      Reply
  6. Susan the other

    This seems so strange to me. That Helmer, who has done so much to set the facts straight, usually in favor of Russia and revealing the depth of American propaganda being used, that Helmer should be “exiled” in any way. I’ve always thought that nostalgia was an effect of our biological clock. That we became nostalgic for our youth just as we were no longer young. But being a political exile must be something different. Maybe because ideas don’t really decay. Nor facts. Interesting tidbit about the US putting a nuclear missile base in Deveselu, just west of Constanta, capable of demolishing southern Russia.

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  7. ambrit

    The worst crime of the Neo-liberal Dispensation is it’s exiling of most of us from hope. Not the ersatz thing that Obama so famously perverted, but the real thing.
    When America’s former ‘middle class’ catches on to the evil that will be their children’s lives, watch out.

    Reply
    1. Raymond Sim

      ‘Neoliberal Dispensationalism’ would be a good name for the currently prevailing secular faith of the PMC.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        I can see schisms developing. One creed bows and makes praise in the direction of Wall Street. Another sacrifices to Davos. Yet another, herisarchs!, pours out oblations to The Inscrutable East.
        As the ringmaster in the Petro Arena intones; “Are you ready to Rouble!?”

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  8. Old Sovietologist

    The Russian MIC is mostly state-owned enterprises. In the US, the owners are big investors who demand profit—for instance the mega-fund Blackrock and others like it. It’s all about money. Is engineering still a valued profession in the USA? It most certainly is in Russia.

    Engineering and science have built the modern world, yet this line of work is not pursued by many young folks. Part of the reason is that such an education now costs a lot of money in the USA so only well-off middle-class families have the means. And they prefer to steer their children into more lucrative careers in business and banking etc.

    The result is that the US isn’t producing many engineers for a country its size. Russia graduates twice as many engineers and I think even Iran matches the US.

    Granted Russia has the good fortune of inheriting what was by far the world’s most advanced higher education system in hard science and engineering created by the Soviet Union. That means the quality of the engineers is much higher.

    The legacy of the Soviet system, which pursued a no-holds-barred program of building up the world’s most formidable technical education system the results of which we are seeing in terms of hypersonic missile technology.

    Reply
    1. Felix_47

      Looking at my kid’s math professors I am struck at the high proportion of Soviet Bloc educated ones. They are often female and good looking as well. The US imports brainpower. And they seem happy. If I were Putin I would focus my efforts on one thing……harnessing the oligarchs and taxing them and providing a high standard of living for my citizens. If he were to do that all this angst about NATO would become meaningless. Sadly, like Sleepy Joe the Russians have a level of leadership incompetence as well.

      Reply
      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Huh? With all due respect, you do not have a grip.

        Putin raised per capita income in Russia from $5,000 to $28,000 on a purchasing power basis. Tell me another country that has increased incomes over 5x in this time period…which includes the Global Financial Crisis and Covid recessions.

        And domestic incomes have nada to do with the US/NATO threat. This is no different than if China installed missiles and trained troops in Mexico and talked about regime changing us.

        Reply
      2. anon in so cal

        Putin has invested in infrastructure, schools, factories, shipyards, roads, bridges…

        -improved lives of ordinary Russians–schools, hospitals, agriculture, small businesses, life expectancy increased…

        2024 goals include increasing life expectancy up to 78 years, growth of real income of citizens above inflation, etc.

        The oligarchs are residue of Bill Clinton’s and Harvard economists’ infliction of neoliberal “reform” on Russia’s economy back in the 1990s when the US interfered in Russia’s election.

        High speed internet is widely available and free in many parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Compare that with LAX’s slow internet that’s complimentary for 45 minutes.

        Reply
  9. LawnDart

    A person who is driven away, one specific individual targeted by unoffical threats carried out by state actors or agents of a state, is that person an “exile” or “refugee”?

    Reply
    1. Art_DogCT

      It can be both. ‘Exile’ describes a person separated from their home, for any reason. It can be voluntary or forced. Exile can be internal within one’s nation of origin, or external. ‘Refugee’ describes the status of a person having to flee from ones home because of war/armed conflict, natural disaster, discrimination, credible threats of extrajudicial violence, etc.

      Reply
    2. Amfortas the hippie

      aye, Lawndart…both.
      at least in my case(escaped the Pine Curtain(East Texas) 30 years ago..due to a campaign of persecution by the pillar of the community dad of that girl i helped out of a jam that time)

      Reply
      1. LawnDart

        Honor carries its own burdens: sucks when one pays a high price for doing the right thing, and payment is demanded by fools.

        Reply
  10. Tom Bradford

    To the extent that Ovid bewailed exile because it meant writing books no-one would read, the internet makes exile pretty meaningless now!

    I chose exile from the UK in 1990 and have never regretted it, tho’ in truth what I went into exile from had under Thatcher become more foreign to me than the exile I went into down here in NZ. Nor do I have any desire to go back as I know the green fields and magic tadpole ponds of my youth have become covered in concrete, neighbourhoods of neighbours have become dormitories for strangers and survival has replaced betterment as the raison d’etre.

    Reply
  11. Mike Mc

    Exile… we exiled ourselves in retirement to The People’s Republic of Colorado in 2021 only to find that redistricting here has made our Congressional representative is none other than Lauren Bobert!

    Forty plus years in blue dot Lincoln Nebraska didn’t protect us anymore. So old we remember Nebraska Democrats like Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson but that was many years ago. Reaganism mutated into Trumpism aided and abetted by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

    So it goes. If we Earthlings manage to avoid a nuclear exchange due to the Current Unpleasantness, we’ll be lucky. I think.

    Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Come next weekend, Scotty from Marketing may be out of a job. We could send him to you and he would make just a good a Democrat as a Republican which is pretty insulting when I think about it.

        Reply
        1. Wukchumni

          Scotty from Marketing would be a perfect fit in the CVBB, more happy clappers here than you can shake a stick at, and most importantly, they vote as they are told to.

          Reply
  12. deplorado

    Sorry, but what is the story with John Helmer? Is he in actual exile for legal reasons, like Snowden?
    A brief online search does not yield anything at all about him being on the lam. Is exile in reference to him a metaphor, or an actual fact?

    Reply
    1. deplorado

      My assumption was he was exiled from the US, now I see it is actually from Russia. Still not clear on the seriousness of the other (2) exiles he references.

      Reply
      1. JohnA

        Yes that confused me. I thought Helmer was based in Moscow. He certainly reports as though he lives there.

        Reply
  13. stefan

    My father was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1912. He was arrested in 1931 and transported by boxcar to the Far East. His father had been arrested the year before and promptly worked to death in a labor camp. My father spent the next ten years in the gulag and internal exile. In 1941, he was living illegally on forged papers and working as a surveyor on the Moscow-Volga Canal. Sent to the front unarmed, he defected to the German Army, where he worked with Gehlen’s Eastern Intelligence. After the war, he was picked up by the Americans, and joined the OSS. We emigrated to the US in 1953.

    His sister, nine years younger, was a medical student during the siege of Leningrad, a time when there were not enough live people to pick up the dead on the streets. After the war, she was exiled to Tashkent SSR, where she lived her entire adult life as the chief pathologist of the city hospital in Karaganda.

    My father and his sister were only able to meet again after perestroika, in 1980s Germany, where she remarked in wonder, “I thought the Germans lost the war.”

    Reply
  14. orlbucfan

    As a NASA brat, I moved so much growing up that I never really felt “home.” That’s vastly different from exile, but it is still an unsettled state of mind. Yves, who painted that scene of Napoleon staring wistfully at the disappearing boat in the far distance? That has to be St. Helena where he was excelled. The painting is beautiful even though I don’t care for the biped in it.

    Reply
  15. Paula

    “I moved so much growing up that I never really felt home.” I think that is the case for many us who had military parents. Not quite sure how to answer the question when it comes, “where are you from?” Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Michigan, Spain, Washington, Idaho. It’s not the usual experience and rather alienating, but I find most minds narrower in their perceptions of the world with having experienced only one locale all ones life. So, I am thankful for the diversity I experienced.

    Reply
    1. orlbucfan

      NASA is part of the War Dept./DOD, but my folks were civilian employees. “Home is where the heart is” is an old saying but it does contain truth/wisdom. Still trying to track down who painted that painting at the top. Major typo in my earlier comment, meant to write ‘exiled’ not ‘excelled.’ Big booboo. LOL.

      Reply
  16. Synoia

    Before I was 6 I had lived in the UK, Lebanon, Syria, and Nigeria. I lived in Nigeria until 8, then boarding school and University the UK.

    My view of the world was painfully different for any others in my School, and it was savage surviving as an outsider.

    I left the UK, and have not resided there since. It was never home. Home was and is where I rest my head, mostly in comfort.

    Reply
  17. Tom Pfotzer

    To John Helmer:

    Your exile is the penalty you paid for your devotion to your principles, one of which is to serve as public witness to sham and corruption.

    I admire you for your values, and even more for the courage you clearly have to implement those values.

    Your life is well worth living.

    Thank you!

    Reply

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