What’s next in Fortress Russia?

Jill Dougherty, one of America’s most experienced foreign-affairs journalists, wrote last month:

Russia is now “Fortress Russia,” with Putin as its defender, an image hammered home by state-owned media, a stance supported by some Russian voters smarting over what they perceive as insults, attacks and “Russophobia” from the West.

Googling “fortress Russia”+Putin will produce many other instances of the besieged stronghold image (or meme), some going back a decade and a half. For no particular reason, it made me think about another fortress and another man whose true self was a riddle to his followers and adversaries (Who Is Mr X?) – and who, incidentally, made a brief appearance on this blog in 2016, in this comment by JCass.

It’s the protagonist of Hakim of Merv, the Dyer in a Mask, a story by Jorge Luis Borges from his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy. It’s been more than 25 years since I first read it, and although details of Hakim’s theology have vanished from my memory, I remembered the final scene vividly, as rereading the story confirmed a few days back. Here’s my translation of the closing paragraphs from the original, with some help from this Russian translation:

In the year 163 of the Flight and the year five of the Shining Visage, Hakim was besieged in Sanam by the Khalif’s army. Supplies and martyrs abounded, and speedy succor was expected from throngs of angels of light. Suddenly a dreadful rumor went through the fortress. One of the harem women (so it said), about to be strangled by eunuchs for adultery, had screamed that the prophet’s right hand lacked the ring finger and the other fingers had no nails. The rumor spread among the faithful. In bright sunlight, on an elevated terrace, Hakim was praying to his kindred deity for a victory or an omen. With bowed heads, obsequiously – as if running against the rain – two of his lieutenants tore off his gem-embroidered Veil.

At first, there was trembling. The promised apostolic face, the face which had been to heaven, was indeed white, but with the characteristic whiteness of spotted leprosy. It was so swollen and unbelievable that it seemed a mask. There were no eyebrows; the right eye’s lower lid hang over a senile cheek; a heavy bunch of tubercles had eaten out the lips; the nose, unhuman and squashed, was like a lion’s. Hakim’s voice attempted one last deception.

“Your abominations have barred you from perceiving my radiance,” he began.

They didn’t listen and stabbed him with spears.

I’d prefer “pierced” but it would rhyme (imperfectly) with “spears,” an undesired side effect. “Transfixed” is too Latinate; “riddled” suggests multiple piercings; “ran through” and “drove spears through him” sound watered down. Borges’ statement of fact is simple and forceful: “No lo escucharon, y lo atravesaron con lanzas.”

This isn’t a bad end for a prophet so brazen. For the edification of the voting public, I would suggest the story of M. Valdemar’s demise.

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