Interviewed by: Gary Sorkin, Pacific Book Review
PBR: Today we have the pleasure of being with author Vladimir A. Shvartsman, who just published is book titled, How to Paint Chickens and Other Stories, with an alternative title The Way My Life Was, and How it Now. Privitt (Russian: Hello) Vladimir.
VAS: Gary, if you wouldn’t mind, I want to edit your Russian. It should be Privet. In any case, Dobrogo Dnya (Russian: Good Day), to you and all people who would read the interview. I’m glad for having an opportunity to discuss my books and live here in USA.
PBR: Your book begins with you telling the reader why you decided to write it now, due to some unforeseen health issue, I believe. Is that behind you now, and are there other reasons why you decided to publish your book?
VAS: Yes, that is right. I had a plan topublish a book of stories but much later. A medical issue whirled my time and signaled that there was no reason for delaying and so I did. I have not given a second thought or regret about publishing, if energy and desire will be abundant than noting will restrict me from writing more stories for one more book. Thanks to the medical wonder, my operation was successful and I’m better now than I was before.
PBR: Let’s begin with your childhood. Although quite different from mine, for example, how do you feel your experiences and challenges helped you throughout your life?
VAS: Most of the kids my age started learning the fact of life much earlier than in America. Probably excerpts from my book “Born under the Dark Sun” satisfies your question, “I had the misfortune of never knowing my grandparents, and this left a great void in my life. I was born in the most remote part of Russia, where summer was a scant three months long, and the winter temperatures would drop negative fifty degrees Celsius and remain that way for several months. I guess, you could say it was a unique environment and the people there proudly called them, a Siberiak (Siberian). This seemingly inhospitable place, the place of my birth, was a place where caring for your friend was more important than caring for yourself. In this type of environment, total cooperation was necessary; you really had no choice but to get along. If survival were important to you, then you would allow other people to take care of you while you were busy taking care of someone else. Care was provided and accepted with much pride. No one dared to ask for help, except in case where lives were at risk. Loosing of self-respect and the respect by others would follow if help were requested prematurely or for gaining of something. Therefore, if help was accepted then it was with pride. Only feeble people would sacrifice their dignity by asking for help in sight of small difficulties.”
PBR: What are the major cultural differences you see among people that grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and those of similar age born and raised in the USA?
VAS: Half of my life, I lived in USSR ruled by Bolshevik dictatorship. Many die-hard ideologists are vigorously resisting calling it a socialistic country and preferring to characterize it as a various form of State capitalism. The country was promoted as the first large-scale implementation of utopia philosophy described by Karl Marks. That ideology was expended and practically implemented by Vladimir Lenin in Russia. So humanitarian looking fantasy, called a socialism that supposed to transform much later into a communism fortified by Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The ideology aims of creating a classless (equal pay) society structured upon common ownership of the means of production. In 1917, “dictatorship” of business owners was forcefully replaced by Dictatorship of Bolsheviks, Union, and Bureaucracy in short, the Mob. Occurring changes in the country for a regular folks wasn’t even close to as it was promised and no land was giving to its citizens. We had a free state-running Medicare, which doesn’t care for much of us and a joke “a government pretends paying us for work that we pretend to do” reflects a living condition and mood of the country.
The political elite had a chance for shopping in dedicated stores and treated in a fully equipped hospital. Having only a retirement as the major safety net and no charitable organizations, citizens had no other choice but learning how to be self-reliant. There was no complains or blaming the government on living condition though. Everyone knew there would not be much time required for arranging a space in one of the hard-labor camps. All my eleven uncles were killed at the end of the New Economical Policy (NEP), among others thirty millions, whose lives had perished during communist’ rulings for not being agreed with the socialistic ideology.
A temporary freedom during NEP offered my family the opportunity for working and prospering. They were, as I am, workaholics. During a few short years, the family became the richest in Siberia. Eleven, hard working brothers turned a farming opportunity into a gold mine. A size of their farm increased, they were able to employ more people and so the family’s wealth. The family wasn't the exception and or alone in Russia. That scared communists and bloodiest destruction of successful farmers had begun.
America was and still is the “shining city upon a hill” as Ronald Regan said, though that somewhat has diminished, remains a dream-country for many folks around the world. A powerful and prosperous industrial complex was able generating enough wealth for supporting many state-running welfare programs, charitably contributing to humanity, and worldwide peaceful coexistence. The Constitution, a plenty of water (oceans), and love for money (comfort) has worked for USA advantage by slowing the Marxist-Leninist expansion and influencing general population’s mind setting. Unfortunately, the socialists never ended the war for people hearts and mind, which has greatly intensified in USA during last several years. They see USA as the major obstacle in achieving the worldwide socialistic revolution and establishing the dictatorship of their ideology. That is why destructing USA significance by diminishing it economical influence and military might is liberal’s objectives. A greatest effort by progressive activists, another word for socialists, started bringing substantial and subtly changes in America.
Now, social life in Russia is quite different. In my time, citizens paid very little attention too politics. There was no real election, there was no opposition party allowed. We lived mostly occupied with solving down to earth problems, like how to survive the winter season. During the summer, all, adults and kids, were busy with micro-farming planting and harvesting potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and sunflower seeds for making cooking oil. Contrary to a common believes that having Dictatorship of Workers and socialism is good we had no welfare, no food stamps or housing assistance. Some saying, that socialism in Russia was subvert very soon after the revolution. Since admitting failure of the socialistic experiment in Russia, ideologists blamed uneducated, anti-Socialist peasantry and vast untrained population for resisting to join them and they were destroyed. The effort was made promoting atheism and replacing religious believes, by destroying churches and imprisoning followers, to materialistic teaching. All those dictatorship policies forceful retreat the society from traditional values but brought no pronounced victory. Socialism could not be victorious as long as a traditional family, the nuclei of society was not intruded, destroyed and replaced by government workers. Lenin wrote, “'Reality says that State Capitalism would be a step forward for us; if we were able to bring about State Capitalism in a short time it would be a victory for us. How could they be so blind as not to see that our enemy is the small capitalist, the small owner? How could they see the chief enemy in State Capitalism? In the transition from Capitalism to Socialism our chief enemy is the small bourgeoisie, with its economic customs, habits and positions.” Isn’t America going exactly thru the same kind of evolving, when the government supports only large corporations and showering small companies with thousand regulations?
PBR: What were some of your misconceptions about life in the United States, you know, things that you thought were different from how you realized they are now that you are a citizen?
VAS: A number of people are associating socialism with individual freedom when the opposite is true. Communist Party thought that the power of society is unlimited over individual rights of person. Society makes any laws as it wishes and enforcing them upon anyone as they wish. During thirty years of my life, I, as many citizens, lived in a strictly controlled space. The government controlled what we read, what we eat, and whom we date. Quite often, we’re stereotyping people based on nationalities, religions, behaviors, hobbies, professions, etc. and things by flavors, textures, functions, purposes, etc. If classifications were result of our own analyzing, it would help us in many ways and mostly it makes us more efficient. A different result is occurred when the stereotyping as the way of thinking imposed on us by the government. During the time, I lived in Russia there was no private enterprise and no private attorney. Everyone was employed by the government. Bribes and corruptions were widespread, but people from a social circle that I belonged such case was an extremely seldom. Already living in USA, a time came when I had to hire an attorney to help me with raising funds for my company.
PBR: Tell us about your love for writing. Who are some of your favorite authors, and what books have influenced you mostly in your writing career?
VAS: My desire for writing came from my love for reading. Of course, gained experience in parenting (raising my son), educating (teaching), managing employees in my high-tech company, and living on socialist and capitalist worlds provides plenty material and stories to tell. Here’s again, a paragraph from “Born under the Dark Sun” described my obsession with reading. “As all teens, I had a hunger for knowledge. A small factory town with an intellectually sterilized population, nestled in a forest, could not provide spiritual nutrition for the harmonious development of a young soul. There was only a single source of information left a carefully censored library. Librarians were, at the time, encouraging people to read more often, and I read voraciously. I read everything, everywhere, and all the time. (It is not surprising that I was awarded prizes simultaneously in three libraries in competition for reading the largest number of books.) As I became older, the days seemed, mysteriously, to get shorter and shorter. There was not enough time during the day to read, and my parents would not allow me to read at night. Intensive reading brought the predictable result of nearsightedness, and so my freedom, in a way, was restricted. I had to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. There was no way to change my parents’ minds, and I forced to find a solution and it was a flashlight. Obediently and surreptitiously, I went to bed with my book and my flashlight. Covered by a blanket, I could read as much as I wished.”
Again from the same book: “An open, clean sheet of paper drew me as if it was magnetic. It invites me to discuss my struggle in learning and understanding the art of painting. My diary was my best friend and confidant. I recorded my notes until my last days in Russia, and it exceeded three hundred pages.
Intentionally I avoided writing about politics. There was no guaranty that the KGB’s forever reaching hands would not “accidentally” grab the diary. It was a common knowledge the government confiscates just about anything that even remotely tells people the truth about life. Writing about politics, the government, and just anything that can be contemplated as anti-government propaganda guaranteed a twenty-five year “vacation” to a hard labor camp. It was a wise decision, but there was no way to foresee that a non-political short story about my trip to Tbilisi would be enough to trigger a negative reaction of a customs officer. This story mentions nothing about the government. It discussed only that an absence of competition is a reason for a bad service at a local hotel. During my emigration ordeal, I attempted to ship my diary along with other belongings. At custom, a checkout guard noticed my dairy. He opened it at the middle and started reading. After a few minutes, he told me, “I will not let you spread dirt about my mother-land around the world. I know a good people are trying to help you and I do not want to hurt them. Take your writing back and destroy it this instant.”
After that, I attempted to ship my diary through the United States embassy. An ambassador at the United States embassy refused to take it because, as he explained, my dairy might contain pages of sensitive information. He told me that if the KGB found out about an illegal transfer of documents, it would be bad for what he saw as an improving American-Russian relationship. Only after crossing the border did I learn that other countries’ embassies would have been more helpful. I was naïve and trusted what appeared to be the mightiest of embassies.
I feel badly for leaving my diary in a hostile country. I made a copy of it and one left with my mother and the other with a former ex-comrade, who lost my diary. He told that he was afraid to keep it in his house or hide in his girlfriend’s apartment. She destroyed my dairy when they split as revenge or punishment. During a moment when I had prayed, I asked for a miracle to let it to be lie and she had changed her mind at last moment by deciding to keep it. One day, I will take a trip back to recover it.
I tried several ways to get the diary out of Russia, but none of them assured safe delivery, and I decided not to gamble. There was a way to ship the dairy to me, but the deliverer must be a relative. Two more years of endless paperwork brought the result. I got news that my relatives are about to leave Russia for good. Honestly, I did not know whether I had waited more for my relatives or for my diary to arrive. Most likely, the vision of joyful reunion with what I had been missing heightened the expectation of that moment so much more, making it even more exciting. They arrived looking pale and tired but happy to see us. We took them home, and after a short meal, they went to bed. I felt it would be rather impolite to ask about my diary on the first day and second. Only on the third day did I ask otherwise I thought should not inquire about it at all. The reunion was tarnished by the devastating news that my diary was lost during their immigration ordeal. Three hundred pages of my innermost thoughts and feelings were lost forever. I hope that someday I will return to Russia and search for it, but I fear it has disappeared forever.”
It may be difficult to believe that I settled in Louisville KY because of stories written by James Fennimore Cooper. After living Russia, my wife and I were directed to Rome, Italy where we waited for a travel permit. A caseworker offered us Louisville for settlement. The name of the city was a strange and I would reject it if not recalling stories out of his books, how local people were fishing in river Ohio and hunting in a local forest. I felt settling in Louisville would be as good as coming to my hometown and I agreed with the offer.
I like many writers and here who made my world as it is now. Here is just a small list: Fyodor Dostoevsky [Idiot], Thomas Mann [The Magic Mountain], Leo Tolstoy [War and Peace], William Shakespeare [Hamlet], Ivan Yefremov [Lezvie britvy], Mikhail Bulgakov [Master and Margarita], George Orwell (Animal Farm], and dozen more.
PBR: Please tell us about some of your other writings?
VAS: In an average, I write at least nine hours a day, every day. That number maybe sounds exaggerated to some, in this case, I can say only, that person has not run a small high-tech company. Besides writing at least a dozen of letters to various customers, I almost regularly am filing patent applications for my inventions, writing manuals for new equipment and data sheets for new devices. Above that, writing technical and scientific papers (more than hundred already published), company’s policy and agreements take time and effort. Of course, after dinner with following an hour-long rest, I sit beside my computer from 9:00 pm till 1:00 am working on my manuscripts. My routine is sometimes broken, if I get lucky was having a date.
PBR: You have quite a modern art eye with your painting. Tell us a bit about your career as a painter, please.
VAS: Book “Colors of Truth” published in 2004 devoted to that question entirely. Below are several pieces out of that book.
------ Gained painting and writing habits were my sanity savers. I am grateful for my teacher who equipped me with the knowledge to interpret my screeching and roaring into a more civilized means of communication and expression.
------ I am blessed by choosing the correct hobbies, and painting was one of them. It made my life more complete and meaningful. Painting allowed my mind to find a way to express emotion through colors and drawings that intrigued me.
----- I believe my pictures can be divided into a few categories. One kind I would characterize as expressionistic. Most of them were painted in a short period of time. I could almost say in a single breath. There was not much thinking about the composition, the color, or other attributes. The paintings were just my feelings and sensations frozen in lines, drowned in harmonious colors. I observed the subject and expressed my feelings toward it. There were never any drawings or studies made for these paintings, prior to starting the actual painting. With a pen or marker, I made only a few designating points directly on the canvas to help me keep my picture in balance. The rest—the colors and shapes—were selected instinctively.
When I sensed a strong emotion about some theme, or when I just get a strong impression of a certain relationship between subjects, only then did I decide to create a picture. From that moment on, my subconscious would begin working on all of the details for the future picture. Until I prepared all of the materials (the canvas, brushes, colors, and oil), my emotional perception of the picture would remain in my subconscious. Only when I was completely prepared would the picture be transferred from the subconscious into the conscious. Until that moment, I would not decide what I would place on the canvas, or where, in terms of colors and forms. When I was ready to work, I would freeze my feelings, my emotions, and my understanding of the subject. I would block my mind so that I would not be able to think about the subject or try to understand or more deeply comprehend it. Sometimes it was difficult, but I tried to keep my mind free from everything else until I finished my work. During the creation of a picture, I constantly compare the “stored” or “frozen” feelings in my mind with the results of what was on the canvas. I considered my work complete only when both the feelings and the results are matching. As long as I did not analyze or test my decisions, I would be able to work quickly and finish without any major corrections. Any interruption, no matter how minor, would lead to significant and sometimes major corrections.
The changes of the background color or composition were frequent. Before beginning my paintings, I would go to the bathroom to empty my bladder, etc., as much as possible. I would then prepare plenty of coffee, wine (if I had the money to buy it), or any other beverage. I would do everything that I could to make sure that I would be able to work without interruption. I felt that nothing should take my mind off my subject or give me new food for thought. It may be better to say that if, for whatever reason, I started to examine and reexamine the results of my already-finished work. I knew that it would take me a long time to finish the picture I was working on. It would also take me a long time to finish, if I began to question why I had chosen the theme I did. If that occurred, then I would be aware, at that point, that I had opened the proverbial barrel of worms. Other thoughts and solutions would start to bombard my mind, and from that moment on, I was not sure of my selection of color or form. I would lose trust with my intuition. All of my small pictures and some of my bigger ones—like Morning Disorder, Suicide’s Leftover, The Next Day, and Motorcyclist—were painted very quickly, without interruption, for fewer than eight hours.
Not all of my paintings were made in a single breath. Freely available, thirteen-by-nineteen-inch-size cardboard cartons were a prime choice for what I considered a try-and-cry sketch. Most of my paintings were done on a larger-sized canvas, and preparation was intense, and the time to finish it was much longer. In some cases, there was prior groundwork prepared for them. I made sketches to find the most expressive lines, positions, and forms of some parts of the body, etc. Such methods were very helpful and saved me tons of artist’s oil color while finding the most satisfying compositions. Drawings of compositions were very sketchy and were made with a single line of pen or pencil. I never draw all of the details of the composition or search for color prior to creating pictures. I felt that it would be too boring to redraw a previously prepared drawing on a canvas. If I had to follow the color patterns of the pre-drawings, then it would surely take all of the fun and excitement out of creating a piece of art. There would be nothing else to discover—not about yourself, and not about the world around you.
PBR: Are you working on some new book or publication now?
VAS: I’m working on three additional manuscripts. It is “Too Personal for Comfort,” the third book from a series “The Fool” about my life, which described episodes of breaking my family apart. It is ready for editing and consequently for publishing, but I’m somewhat hesitating to let it go, because it’s including many peace-making sex actions. I have not shown it to my ex-wife yet. If she would not let me publish it, I will do it after we die. One more manuscript from that series, describing a four-year long divorce is almost ready. It most likely will be published in 2013. Other manuscript, “Bleaching Dirtied Soul” is a third book of the trilogy “Dirty Body can be Washed Off, but not a Dirtied Soul.” In short, it is about a woman whose lifestyle can be described as a nine-year long persistent drug-addict drifter being close to death made a last attempt saving herself. She mailed a letter pleading for help to one of her “ex-clients.” He brought her home. Injections of all kind of drugs, some of each unfiltered and diluted with harmful ingredients significantly deteriorated her body. In order to maximize profit, drug-dealers would mix cocaine with just anything soluble. As the result, an unsuspected drug-addict would inject into the blood stream, stuff that poisoned and eventually destroyed the body and mind. The past six months she lived with a Mexican family, babysitting their kids. There was no possibility for work or prostituting and last six months she lived with a Mexican family, in the living room on a couch. The pay let her living only off cheerio’s and coke-cola and gave her no chance to survive. Damaged venous did not let a normal blood circulation and water started accumulating in her overweight body. She had few more months to live slowly drawing from inside out.
PBR: This is very interesting. We wish you the best of success with your book. Thank you again for joining us today.
VAS: Thank you very much for the opportunity to tell my story to your readers.