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A Refuge from Reality, à la Russe | by Viv Groskop | NYR Daily

British Library Board/Bridgeman ImagesDecembrists in a Siberian prison camp, reproduction of a painting by A.V. Morovov, 1910

Last month, an unusual expression popped up on Instagram: “internal emigration.” Instagram is not the sort of place you expect to be confronted with subliminal political concepts, yet there it was, on a fashionable person’s feed: “vnutrennaya emigratsia” in Russian. The phrase came up in an interview in Russian Esquire’s February issue, in which editor Sergei Minaev was interviewing Aliona Doletskaya, Moscow’s answer to Tina Brown and the launch editor of Russian Vogue, about navigating modern life. 

Afterward, Doletskaya posted about the exchange on her Instagram account and several of her 160,000 followers commented approvingly: “I so agree with you about ‘internal emigration,’” wrote one. “If you are at one with yourself, then you can rise above the trivia around you.” “‘Internal emigration’ feels very current,’” said another. “It’s the ability to maintain sanity amidst everything that’s happening and to live with a feeling of harmony and joy.”

Although several commenters mentioned “Tramp” (which is how the word “Trump” appears in Cyrillic) as an irritant, Putin’s name never appeared. Yet the implications of the phrase “everything that’s happening” are clear enough. Internal emigration is a way of retreating into yourself and shutting out the world along with everything that annoys or upsets you. The two Russian magazine editors defined internal emigration (also sometimes translated as “internal exile”) as finding a domestic space that feels like “your inner Copenhagen.” 

This discussion was not overtly political; it was clear that internal emigration was being used as something close to a catch-all expression similar to other lifestyle concepts such as “wellbeing,” “mindfulness,” or “hygge,” which have all become popular in recent years. That in itself is telling. With all the meditation apps, “little books” of mindfulness, and Scandinavian interior design’s focus on the home and hearth, it may be that many people—and not just Russians—have been flirting with “the flight inward.” 

“It’s a conscious decision,” said Doletskaya of her own process of internal emigration. She and Minaev were referring to how she had arranged her living space: minimalist, curated, designed to create a place conducive to mental refuge, somewhere where she had time and space for her own thoughts and ideas. “I didn’t run away from anything, instead I set up my own world where I have time to observe things, to think, to gather strength. On the other side of the window [outside my Moscow apartment] everything is difficult and chaotic. Here I can rest.”

Who, after all, couldn’t use a little rest and peace of mind at the moment? Last month, a British writer told me that she is “going into purdah.” Purdah, like internal exile, is code for going offline or off-grid. Until recently, though—aside, say, from a writer going into retreat to finish work on a book—there was little reason for anyone in the Western world to want to switch off entirely from political and cultural life. And little sense of why it might be a necessity to save one’s sanity. Today, everyone gets the concept. 

The irony is that it’s an idea taken directly from Russian history: anyone raised in the USSR lived with it through decades of state-sponsored media, sharing samizdat (photocopied literature circulated amongst friends), and cultivating an inner life that involved obsessively re-reading the same authors or listening to the same beloved albums until they knew the song lyrics back to front. The difference now is that voluntarily going into internal exile is not something we’ve had to think about in the West before.

Though closely associated with Russia, both before and after the 1917 Revolution, the concept of internal exile is not exclusively linked to the Soviet experience and has existed at other times and places. The first documented use of the expression is thought to come from France in the 1830s after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, a period in which the French court was dominated by the wealthy bourgeoisie. In that case, it referred to a type of hedonism. In 1839, the author Delphine de Girardin wrote of “émigration intérieure” among the young people in high society, an attitude that went hand in hand with “political aversion.” These aristocrats lost themselves in parties and dancing rather than getting involved in war and politics, she wrote.

In Germany during the Nazi period, the expression “Innere Emigration” sprang up to describe writers and academics who were against Nazism but chose to remain in Germany after 1933. After World War II, there was a long-running controversy over whether this bystander stance constituted a moral failure. In the US and the UK, the expression can be relatively benign, and in past decades was used to describe hippies who chose to live in communes as “internal exiles.”

At its most literal, the phrase can mean “geographical relocation within your own country”—in other words, being deported within your native country. In the USSR after 1980, the practice was sometimes called “the 101st kilometer” in reference to the Soviet practice of sending “undesirables” at least 100 kilometers out of the capital before the Moscow Olympics that year. Before that, though, many others whom the state considered similarly undesirable had experienced such internal exclusion zones—like the Gulag returnees who were not allowed within twenty-five kilometers of certain cities. The term “propiska,” alluding to a residence permit within the exclusion zone, is still used jokingly in Russian conversation to refer to somewhere difficult to get into (as in, “I won’t get into that club, I haven’t got my resident’s permit”).

But internal exile during the Soviet period came to mean far more than a definition of where you could and couldn’t travel. Instead, it represented something more metaphorical—about traveling within yourself or relocating mentally. It signified a sort of “retreat into the self” that allowed many people to live more happily while avoiding anything to do with politics or public life. 

I have long wondered whether this concept helps to explain how the Soviet Union lasted as long as seventy years; with so many tuning out, perhaps no one could be bothered to bring it down. They were too busy listening to classical music, reading mostly uncontroversial books, and memorizing poetry. They preferred to sit it out until the system crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions. 

The mindset is reflected in part in the old Soviet joke: “We pretend to work. They pretend to pay us.” But the true spirit of internal exile is something more extreme that might be summed up as: “They pretend to govern. We don’t even pretend to care.” Doesn’t this sound like quite an attractive, if nihilistic, proposition? It feels like an idea whose time has come—again—and this time, one that is suddenly relevant for millions in the West. What attitude do you cultivate in an era of deep political alienation, and when a great deal of the culture around you is anathema? What are the rules for intellectual survival? 

For many Russian authors and artists for centuries, the idea of “turning inward” and living oblivious of the political concerns of the moment has been a vital skill and even an art form. For some, their banishment was at first literal and geographical, and only later became psychological. Pushkin, for example, was exiled (ironically enough, for writing his “Ode to Liberty”) from both Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 1820s, and later his freedom of movement was also severely restricted. Arguably, the experience of isolation from his reading public ensured that he kept writing across a range of genres instead of trading on his reputation as a poet. 

In similar fashion, Dostoevsky’s nine-year exile during the 1850s, though disastrous for his health, is often seen by biographers as the making of him as a writer. He endured the horror of a simulated execution by firing squad and developed severe epilepsy during his time in Siberia, but he returned to his work post-exile with an extreme zeal and an unwavering belief in the indomitability of the human spirit. He wrote Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, and The Idiot in rapid succession upon his return. For many Russian writers, these experiences forced them to look away from immediate concerns toward a more abstract contemplation of the human condition. 

In Soviet times, virtually every writer of note was deported, exiled within Russia, or forced into obscurity. The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and the poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam all suffered periods either of physical exile or of a kind of “cold storage” by the regime. They could only continue to create their work (often published only much later or in samizdat) by looking within and cultivating strategies, including black humor, to outwit the censors and their KGB minders. Akhmatova created a network of “listeners” who committed her poetry to memory so that none of it ever needed to be written down. 

Others physically absented themselves whenever possible. After Solzhenitsyn was deported in 1974, he voluntarily exiled himself within the United States, settling in a remote part of Vermont where he rarely received visitors. Solitude, introspection, cogitation, and the quest for intellectual calm became the most important strategies for spiritual survival for these writers.

Is it implausible to suggest that a kind of self-imposed internal exile might be useful even if you are not a great poet? Until Trump in the US, and Brexit in the UK, some involvement in the political and cultural life of their nation was—for most people—a pleasurable activity that took up a small part of your day and didn’t encroach on your mental wellbeing. Now, daily life is a minefield of stress, emotional triggers, irritants, and digital micro-aggressions via email, social media, and cable news that threaten to raise your blood pressure constantly. Yes, the threat is digital because that is the vehicle for the relentless cycle of rolling news, but it is also political. 

As we face this onslaught, there is a quasi-Soviet sense of feeling powerless to enact change. In this environment, it is reasonable to conclude that apathy must surely be defensible as some kind of political act. 

At a literary event about classic Russian authors that I attended at a London bookshop recently, an American in the audience objected to the idea that internal exile was something new for his compatriots. If you couldn’t stand Bush or thought Obama was a phony, he said, you’ve already had plenty of practice at ignoring the news cycle and finding other things to live by. Disillusionment isn’t unique to the Russian political system, he argued. 

This may be true. But for many, on both sides of the Atlantic, the phenomenon of total disillusionment to the point of an intentional complete turning away (a form of “chosen exile”) is fairly novel. The solution recommended by Russian Esquire? The headline on the interview says it all: “The Republic of Doletskaya.” Your own, imaginary Copenhagen. It sounds lonely and possibly delusional. But also very peaceful.

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