Monday, February 3, 2014

What did I say to Stalin? Working on a dream puzzle

The elements of a dream are sometimes like pieces from a complex jigsaw puzzle, needing to be inspected carefully and fitted together with equal care.
   My puzzle pieces often relate to memories of dream travel in other times and other realities, whose geography and languages may be quite mysterious to my waking mind. So figuring out the puzzle involves not only working with the shape of the pieces, but discerning what is on them. This can involve quite a lot of research.
   Let me share an example from my recent dream life.

What did I say to Stalin? I have written it down, as I remember it, but it looks like nonsense.
    I need to back up. I won’t start at the beginning; that would take hundreds of pages. I’ll start in mid-story, which is where humans find themselves on any given day, including the day of birth.
     On the night of this adventure, I am sick and low and catching cabin fever after days of shut-up time in the deep freeze of a Northern winter.  I drag myself to bed in the early hours wishing for a livelier scene. I want to get out and about in a fitter body and a happier state of mind. Not just any body. A body that belongs to me, but is not subject to my current indignities. The body of a Traveler who might be a parallel version of myself, having fun in a parallel universe near or far from my own.
    There are places I know. But I set no bearings, no destination.
    Surprise me, is all of my intention, as I seek and find the sweet spot for my face on the pillow. .

I’m traveling fast, ever eastward through Central Europe. I have energetic companions who know what they are doing. When we stop to refuel the car, I look at the office, trying to identify where I am. I see the word “RUSAVA” painted on the glass of a window. Then we are pushing east again, in a variety of conveyances.
     We go as far as Ufa. I am escorted to a rustic restaurant where something very important is taking place. Heavyset men in suits and winter coats, some in uniform, most of them clearly armed. I am shown to a big wooden table where bottles of alcohol and plates of snacks are laid out.
     The heavy men huddled around the man at the head of the table lean back, opening my line of sight. I am looking at a man with a big mustache in a peasant blouse. This is Stalin. I know this and I am amazed. I must have jumped across time as well as space. I know the year is 1943. We are in the midst of World War II. Robert the Traveler seems at home in this situation.   
     Introductions are being made. I have no idea what to say to Stalin. I don’t speak Russian, apart from a few drinking toasts. Wait, a toast might be perfect. I come up with something I have heard others say during my journey.
    “Zhveega, zhveega!” I don’t know what this means. I have the notion that the expression means something like “Eat up!” or “Eat meat!”
     I grin like a fool. The response from Stalin’s crew is absolute silence. Stalin’s smile is frozen. The others have erased all facial expression. I don’t know what I said but it is not winning any awards here.
    Stalin’s eyes narrow, his cheeks rise, his chest heaves and he lets out a booming laugh. His cronies join in. He claps me on the shoulder, barking something that is not quite what I said. When I join the men at the table, conversation centers on the importance of bread. A man who does not like bread cannot be trusted, says Stalin. I agree, though this seems like an odd statement in a time when many people are starving. Not at Stalin’s table, however.

There were more adventures, but enough clues to follow in what I have recorded here. I came back from my excursion energized, much restored after only two hours in bead, eager to know more. Where had my traveling self gone this time? How did I get to a private dinner with Stalin, and why him? What did I say to Stalin?
      I had three primary leads. Rusava. Ufa. Zhveega, zhveega. I set to work tracking them.
     It did not take me long to locate Rusava. It is a village in Moravia, on the eastern side of the Czech Republic. A river with the same name flows through the town. The word “Rusava” refers to the rust-red color of its waters after the spring thaw. I have not been to Rusava, in ordinary reality, but it could feature in my future travels. I now teach regularly in Prague and enjoy visiting the Czech countryside. Robert the Traveler may have decided to go ahead of me and scout the land. He does that quite often.
     Ufa was distantly familiar. I found it on a map, south-east of Moscow in what is today the Republic of Bashkortostan  I noticed that in 1941, Ufa became the headquarters of the Comintern – the organization charged with fomenting Communist revolution around the world - after its staff was evacuated from Moscow by train. That was significant to me, and maybe even more significant to my traveling self. In a previous era in this life, I wrote a historical novel, Carnival of Spies, involving the Comintern and love and betrayal in Stalin’s time, on the eve of World War II. I had planned a sequel set in the time of the war itself, but abandoned that project because my life and my interests changed. It seemed possible that another Robert in a parallel universe had carried on with the book project I abandoned, and that I had entered his imagination as he brought its scenes alive, as well as his travels in the landscapes of the book.    

    “Zhveega”? That was a trickier assignment. I gave several versions of the word to Auntie Google and her sisters. Zveega. Zweega. Zwigr. I searched dictionaries of Russian, Czech other East European languages. No luck. Then I sent my dream report to a Czech friend. She came up with an intriguing suggestion. “Zveega” could be the Czech word žvýkat, which means “to chew”, or its imperative form, žvýkej". Stalin’s policies resulted in widespread famine and he sent huge numbers of people to Siberia, to the gulags where they were starving. When starving people got bread or a little meat, they would need to chew very carefully.
     If I said, “Chew, chew!” to Stalin in the context of those times, my statement would certainly have produced astonishment. I suppose that Robert the Traveler was lucky that Stalin chose to receive this as a joke.
     Was my journey to Ufa an experience of time travel? Or a quantum jump into a parallel universe? A scene from a past life - and if so, whose, exactly? A virtual fantasy generated by some unseen crew of dream producers - and if so, why? Or all of the above.
     I am willing to leave the question open. What I do know is that it is endlessly productive to work with the facts of a dream, to hold those facts clear and firm in the mind and to stay with them until something turns up, and you can see where a puzzle piece fits into a larger pattern.
     I must add that when you have all the pieces fitting together, you may need to turn the whole construction this way and that, like a Rubik's cube, because it is more than a jigsaw puzzle on a table. It is a product of experiences in the multiverse.


When a dream has as much energy and intrigue as this, I leave my case file open and go on adding further information as it becomes available. I asked a Russian friend for her take on the mystery word I transcribed as Zhveega. She commented:

In Russian, there is a verb жевать, zhevat', derived from the same root as the Czech verb. An imperative form would be "Zhui!" Other imperatives include  "Zhri!" - a crude word for "eat", especially eat greedily and sloppily, gobble, devour; "Zhivi!" (stress on last syllable) - "Live!" and even "Dvigai!" (stress on first syllable) - "Move it!" But none of these words rings true. Also, Stalin was Georgian. Could this be a Georgian word?
     The scene is so easy to re-create in one's imagination: a tyrant surrounded by his terrified courtiers, eating and drinking merrily during the time when most people are starving... Bread was indeed an huge propaganda tool. The man-made famine of 1932-33 occurred a decade before the wartime year of 1943, but the party bosses probably partied non-stop between these dates - at least those of them who managed to avoid the gulag. 
    My first and admittedly biased association with "Zhveega!" pronounced in the company of Stalin was with "izverg" (EEZ-verg) - an archaic word for a monster, sadist, somebody extremely cruel and evil, derived from a Slavic for "outcast". Stalin was izverg all right. But this word is unlikely to provoke a lighthearted reaction from your hosts. 

The word sleuthing continues. After I posted this blog, I heard from a friend who is fluent in both Czech and Russian, and may have come up with the best interpretation of what I said to Stalin yet:

I read your blog "What did I say to Stalin?" today and suddenly it dawned on me. How do you like the word ZVÍŘE (animal) in Czech? In Russian it is ZVJER (wild, predatory animal). Maybe you said to Stalin " Ty zvíře" (in Czech) or: "Ty zvjer" (in Russian) it means: "You (are an) animal!" as a greeting.
     If you called called Stalin "zvíře"  or "zvjer" (an animal) you could have had three reasons:
1. You wanted to look tough, and on familiar ground. Tough guys sometimes greet each other by saying: " Ty zvíře!" or: "Zvjer!" (in Russian).
2. Stalin was a dictator. He was "velké zvíře" (a big animal)  - a big shot.
3. Stalin was a "zvjer" because he 
ordered and committed " zvjerstva" very bad things or he behaved like an animalIn this context it means somebody extremely cruel - a monster - as your Russian friend suggested.

Zhveega=zvjer? To my ear, that's a match. Pretty daring of Robert the Traveler to say that to the dictator of Russia, but he seems to have gotten away with it - in this time. 

Jigsaw photos (c) Robert Moss


Barbara Butler McCoy said...

This post adds an interesting perspective on a submission to the Op-Ed section of the 02.03.14 NYT.

Robert Moss said...

Barbara - I assume you are referring to Timothy Snyder's warnings about Putin's policies towards Ukraine in that excellent New York Times piece. His book "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" is essential reading. Thank you for making the connection.

Unknown said...

One morning in the twilight zone, I found the last piece in the puzzle to see my parallel life. It's very clear. I can draw a map for the little town and surroundings. How the rooms are where I work and other buildings I visit frequently. The furniture and colors. The shops, cafes, the park, squares, parking. I know this little town as well as the one I'm in by now.
It's a real puzzle, because I've been there through several years and found all the different pieces one by one. Only when the last piece was found, I could see the whole "picture". By this experience, I know there are more than this parallel life....and I may not have to wait for the last piece. How exiting.

John Swan said...

I have a dream story where members of a tribe reunite using a puzzle that has the image of the seed of life, seven intersecting circles. The main character is a traders in futures,(living in an office building looking at pictures from satellites, which are digitizing wheat growing among other crops, he makes his living trading futures and he never leaves that room) high in a tower, living his life out not remembering his true destiny until he sees a gypsy woman dancing in mid air outside his office tower. She enters his space with a puzzle piece in her hand and it just so happens that the broker in futures has had a puzzle of the seed of life he became fond of when he was a child, and has held onto it for his entire life, a fact that has baffled him and it happened to have on piece missing. The gypsy woman, the Rememberant (one who comes to remind you of what you have forgotten) offers him the puzzle piece that he immediately recognizes as the piece missing from his childhood puzzle. He goes to a file and brings it out to show her and indeed it fits the space that has been void all these many years..but she will not talk to him, she only dances and plays her flute as if giving a piece of a dance that he has also forgotten. She offers him the piece that is missing but only in exchange for another piece of her choosing and so they trade and after making the exchange she runs for the window going right through it and falling downward out of sight. He runs to the window to see what was her fate and he can not see her, only the cars and the pedestrians dancing with the stop lights. This continues with four more visitors, four more trades of puzzle pieces, four more flute songs, four more dances, which leads the trader to the awareness that his entire life is and illusion of dancing beams of electrons lighting up phosphors in the many cathode ray tubes that surround the point before he jumps out the window his consciousness becomes so quick that he can see the images as flickering dots scanning across the screen....the story goes on from there as the soul group reunites through a ritual that they created before they had entered this world...the puzzle piece with the missing piece is a theme throughout the story for it is the physical emanation of their collective love for one another in this particular journery (joinery plus journey) through the realms of the earth mother...Cheers!! thanks for the image, it fit perfectly into my intent today to make the image by gluing the seed of life image I created onto an old puzzle I am going to buy at the good will store...when I saw your blog with that image I just had to laugh and it inspired me to respond in this way...thanks for all you do are an inspiration to me and I thank your for you work John