Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk.
A Documentary Tale
To the town of N.
The latest incident in the town of N. began like this: early one morning, a Volga of the kind used to transport fair-to-middling public officials rolled up to the hospital and deposited a handful of bureaucrats from the regional center. They were seeking donations to benefit the children of Dzhankoy—give what you can. Dzhankoy, in the north of Crimea, is home to a major railway station; many people passed through it in Soviet times. Our visitors couldn’t tell us how many children there were in Dzhankoy, or what these children needed, but it was clear that the money, if it ever reached them, would do so not in the form of crumpled rubles but of cobbled paths, say, or of an opulent monument, like the one recently erected in the hospital’s courtyard—the bust of some foppish State Councilor bearing a pompous inscription, in pre-revolutionary spelling: “The greatness, glory, and benefit of the Fatherland are the proper goals of the learned, active, experienced Physician.”11The monument is to the Russian physician Efrem Osipovich Mukhin (1766-1850). The hospital received this curious old fellow instead of medicine, catheters, dressings—instead of salaries for nurses and assistants, some of whom, in fact, had to be fired. That’s a clever way to improve the stats: raise the average income of the medical staff by dismissing its poorest members. Then, at the bust’s unveiling, things almost came to a head, as it were.
“The state has given you everything,” the authorities said, sounding offended, as usual.
“What has it given us, exactly? Doctor Who over there?”
“Electricity.” And, after a pause: “Heating. Water.”
“Maybe we should chip in to help the children of California? Since we haven’t annexed them yet…” That joke went over like a lead balloon, both with the visitors and the other doctors. Well, if Dzhankoy is in need… The total came out to over fifteen thousand rubles.
That evening, an image, a metaphor suggested itself: “It’s like a heart attack. The patient is hooked up to the monitor, hoping that the machine’s monotonous beeping will tell him something, anything. All he can think about are household chores, little errands, and the physical wellbeing of his loved ones. Can’t read, can’t listen to his favorite music—not because of the pain (there’s no more pain), but because books and music belong to the past, while the present… It’s as if there is no present. There’s only the beeping of the monitor, the other patients, who are just as confused as he is, and the sense that life will likely go on, but that it won’t be the same. Life will be different. But in what way?”
It was then that a new element appeared in daily life: an important, depressing element, like father’s death or mother’s illness (that same year she had to be moved from Moscow, for the last time, to be here, closer to the hospital)—like undeniable knowledge about one’s neighbors.
This fund drive for Crimean children took place in March 2014. The powerful, positive emotions that flared up long ago, in a different era—“Citizens, bring me your hearts!” and all that—are still there to keep one going, like any real (if not altogether sober) feelings. Ten years have slipped by, almost unnoticed, since that first day in the town of N. A lot can change in ten years.
N. is old (only a century younger than Moscow) and small, but it’s a proper town nonetheless; it has a hospital, two secondary schools, two cemeteries, two Orthodox cathedrals, a police station, a prosecutor’s office, and a courthouse. There are also two libraries—one for children, the other for adults. The first, thanks to the efforts of philanthropists, is going strong. The second is declining rapidly: no subscriptions to the big journals, and the only new donations come from two local members of the Writers’ Union (both unabashed anti-Semites). There’s a music school (an accordion and a piano); a vocational school (college, as they now call it); a School of Art; a House of Children's Creativity (up for auction); a palatial House of Writers (big mosaic, concerts, readings); an employment office (invariably empty); two traffic lights; tons of pharmacies; a few rest homes; a dock; a twenty-five-meter pool; until recently, a bowling alley (went belly up); a nightclub called Through the Looking Glass (land of imagination: Alices of all sorts—black, red, bald—a Mad Hatter, a White Rabbit, Humpty Dumpty, but very few visitors); a registry office; an art gallery; government buildings—municipal and regional; a fountain; a statue of Lenin on Lenin Square, which lies at the end of Lenin Street (but no corresponding avenue—the only avenue is named after Pushkin). The town paper is called October; it publishes all the local death notices, which is the only reason doctors read it. And, of course, there are fields, ravines, forests. In terms of water, there’s the river Oka—navigable by ships, dredged and deepened every spring—as well as a shallow little stream. There’s also a pond at one of the rest homes—“stocked,” as the ad promises. The Oka isn’t rich in fish, but one time a patient managed to bring in several kilograms of sterlet. There’s no bridge, and who needs it? This region maintains no relations with the one that lies on the other side of the river. Since the brick factory closed down, most of the men have been driving taxis or working security at the town’s innumerable shops. There’s no industry to speak of.
The main problem with small towns is the lack of choice, but here there’s almost always a choice (the hospital is an exception), what the Brits might call “the other club”—a place you wouldn’t be caught dead in. Teachers don’t live on Resurrection Hill. Why? Just because—for a similar reason that those who are loyal to the local hospital would never go to the cheburek joint.
Wine isn’t in great demand among the locals, but there are also two wine shops.
“Do you drink every day?” the young saleswoman asks the gray-haired artist. Behind his back, the girls at the shop call him Don Ramon—his favorite label.
The saleswoman isn’t judging the artist, she’s just curious.
“No, not every … well, yes.”
And a follow-up question, posed just as courteously:
“Do you just sip it or chug it down?”
She doesn’t know how else to ask; he understands and takes no offense. Incidentally, the locals are drinking less: for example, they’ve stopped bringing the doctors moonshine. And they smoke less, too, and drive more cautiously; all the daredevils have either come to their senses or gotten themselves killed. People don’t beat their children as frequently. Yes, despite it all, the town of N. is moving ever closer to the West—and much more quickly than Moscow, too.
There you have order: even tiles, wide sidewalks, not a single stall or kiosk. Here you have less by way of order, but at least no one torments you: no concrete barriers, no boom gates in every yard, no forced resettlement, and the lesbian couple, though they stand out a bit, are treated pretty much like anyone else—in contrast to state, the residents of N. have come to respect privacy.
Concerning the name of the town. It’s a well-known fact that writers are inferior to pigs: “A pig doesn’t shit where it eats, doesn’t shit where it sleeps… A pig would never do what Pasternak did” (Vladimir Semichastny), and that’s why the landscape of Russian literature extends only to Moscow, Petersburg, and, very tentatively, to Voronezh, Taman, Mtsensk, exotic Abakan (“Where the clouds roll on,” and where they’ve even established a Cloud Museum), Magadan, Orenburg, while the rest is all Yuriatin, Skotoprigonyevsk, Kalinov, Glupov, Goryukhino—in a word, N., so as not to upset Semichastny.22On October 29, 1958, at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Young Communist League, the organization’s First Secretary, Vladimir Semichastny (who would later become Chairman of the KGB), read a speech denouncing Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago had been published abroad. The quote comparing Pasternak to a pig is taken from that speech. The existing locales of Voronezh, Taman, Mtsensk, Abakan, Magadan, and Orenburg occur in the works, respectively, of Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Galich, Nikolay Zabolotsky, and Alexander Pushkin; the fictional locales of Yuriatin, Skotoprigonyevsk, Kalinov, Glupov, and Goryukhino occur in the works, respectively, of Boris Pasternak, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Ostrovsky, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Pushkin.
“The world doesn't break, no matter what you throw at it”: stories happen (or rather, anecdotes), but one’s ability to observe them is dulled by excessive proximity to the subject. To witness and be surprised—that requires the right balance between the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar. While even superficial, momentary acquaintance is sometimes enough to arouse sympathy.
Olga L., thirty years old, came for a consultation from a neighboring town in the company of another woman, the head of a kindergarten:
“Will you see us, doctor?”
Olga doesn’t need a cardiologist, her heart is fine, but she has severe type 1 diabetes. “Have you got a glucose meter at home?” Burned out.
How can a glucose meter burn out? It runs on batteries. The truth is it burned up—in a fire set by Olga’s alcoholic neighbor. She managed to save her children (she has three), and now they live in a back room at the kindergarten. No husband.
“Did the neighbor survive?”
“The hell he did.” In a cheerful voice: “Burned to a crisp, like a Buffalo wing!”
There are fires in N., too. A one-story house burned down in the center of town, killing one woman. She handed her children to her husband through the window but couldn’t get out herself. The husband suffered burns to his body and there was serious damage to his eyes; he’s hospitalized in the surgical ward. The children are fine; they’re in the children’s ward, naturally. Word arrived that public officials of a very high order—the type that travel in Mercedes and BMWs, not mere Volgas—would take this matter into their own hands. What does that mean? Would the family be rehoused? No. Would the victim like anything else? To be left alone—and to be given antibiotic eye drops. That last request is, apparently, too trivial for the officials to deal with, and besides, there’s no way to satisfy it: medical purchases are planned far ahead of time.
The governor wants a tour of the hospital. He puts on a robe over his jacket, shoe covers (senseless measures, if you think about it—pure optics):
“How’re they treating you, gramps?” he shouts at an octogenarian. “Doctor let you have a tipple when you need one?”
“I’m not an alcoholic,” the man replies. “And I’m not hard of hearing.”
The governor takes a more respectful tone, asks the man about his life. The man complains that his pension barely covers his rent and utilities, to say nothing of his medications, food…
“You’ve got rights and entitlements, you just don’t know how to use them,” the governor interrupts him angrily.
“An island is a piece of land which is entirely surrounded by water,” Chekhov’s poor “darling” repeated meaninglessly, with conviction. One patient—an architectural restorer—tells a story: one particular public official—the highest ranking in the country—took a liking to a monastery on Lake Valdai. He’s fond of monasteries. This one was on an island—probably for a reason. The public official ordered the building of a bridge to connect the island to the mainland, and the construction destroyed the island, with the best of intentions. The authorities can bomb just about anything, and this earns them attention, like any dangerous thing. But they can’t provide a hospital with pills or nurses, and so their power—as another patient, a Georgian, once put it, before being gently corrected—isn’t worth a hill of bees.
The public officials in the town of N. can’t build a bridge, much less bomb anything. They’re sturdy fellows of medium height, running to fat, who never part with their leather murses—even on their yearly visit to church, on Easter Sunday. When the previous mayor moved out of the apartment he was occupying—and out of town—he left behind a dozen fire extinguishers. Nothing else. And now that’s all he’s remembered for. The only thing the public officials of N. fear are public officials of a far higher standing:
“The general came round, gave Pavel Andreyevich hell…” This is the man’s secretary, who’s run into a hospital to request some document or other. She’s relishing the story, going into raptures. “I tell you, he screamed and screamed—scared Pavel Andreyevich so bad that...” All of a sudden, in a falsetto, for the whole ward to hear: “He shat himself!”
An example of the attitude one should take towards various authorities was set by a surgeon from the neighboring region. At the end of the working day he was surprised by an inspection team. “Hold on, I’ll be with you in a minute," the surgeon told them, then went into the next room, changed, and quietly left the hospital. They waited and waited, then left as well.
“Don’t try and put yourself in the authorities’ shoes,” the head of a major scientific institute in Moscow advised mother when she worked there. This man served as the prototype for Anton Yakonov in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. Neither under him, nor under subsequent heads, when she herself was placed in charge of a laboratory, did mother participate in “mandatory volunteerism”—no picking potatoes, no construction work on Saturdays—and she never faced any consequences for her refusal. “Don’t want to,” and that was that.
Aunties (water, electricity, gas), summer people, foreigners, Tajiks (“Got any work here, boss?"), artists with one foot in N. and the other in Moscow (or maybe even Paris), entrepreneurs, local scientific intelligentsia (Space Research Institute): each group has its own hierarchy, its own distinct estates, which sometimes comprise only a handful of individuals. There are also the lower depths, cheek by jowl with the rest: an orderly whose husband, recently back from prison, regularly beats her in the face; a single woman from Moldova who rejoices whenever she’s allowed to bring her five-year-old daughter along on cleaning jobs—usually she isn’t, and then the girl stays home alone all day. In this circle—where people struggle just to survive, where there’s no running water, no electricity (“you’ve got rights and entitlements”), and where one might see a toilet in the kitchen—amazing things happen.
Volodya Z. was released early from prison and sent to the hospital in N., so as to die on the outside (that is, “receive treatment at his place of residence”). Of his forty-two years—hard to believe—a full twenty-six were spent behind bars, serving eight separate terms (“bids”). When asked if this was true, the police chief, who frequently visits the hospital for both professional and personal reasons, said: “They always exaggerate. Nineteen years sounds about right…” The last time Volodya went up, the charges had been pressed by his own sister, from whom he’d nabbed some piece of furniture or other. (Is there a hospital in Moscow that treats both the police chief and the people he’s put in jail?)
Volodya was wheeled from the elevator directly to the Major Cardiology Labs and diagnosed with severe aortic and mitral valve disease. He eyed everyone warily, and was prone to brief outbursts of rage: doctors are people in uniform, after all—not Volodya’s preferred company. But he made sure to take his pills. Soon he stopped gasping for breath and his edema disappeared. Then he went to Moscow for a valve replacement—the only real way to improve his condition.
Volodya was operated on by the flamboyant Father Georgy—colonel general, professor and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), defendant in the famed “case of the nanodust in the House on the Embankment” (where the plaintiff was none other than the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia),33For a summary of the case of Yury Shevchenko (currently Father Georgy) and Patriarch Kirill’s apartment, see “Patriarch Kirill’s Apartment Buried in Sand,” The Moscow Times, 28 March 2012. former Health and Social Development Minister, chief of the Kirov Military Medical Academy, and so forth and so on, many colorful details: in the institute he heads, they say, everyone must confess to the director. “Now don’t you fret. If something goes wrong under my scalpel, you’re headed straight for heaven.” That, according to Volodya, is how Father Georgy comforted him before the anesthesia was administered. But everything went smoothly. Volodya received two mechanical valves, and returned to N. sober, ruddy, and full of gratitude:
“I’ll do anything you want.”
What, for example?
“Pound someone’s face in maybe.”
No face comes to mind.
“I can serve a term for you.”
Well, well, well. Go ahead, steal a cow or a goose, or smash the front window of the cafe (they call it “Stalin’s,” because the owners have put up the pockmarked Generalissimo’s portrait), and Volodya will take responsibility for the crime.
He died a few months later, but not before fate smiled on him one more time. Volodya had found a job at a mortuary, picking up the deceased. One day, as he was removing a body from its former home, he got to chatting with the woman who’d just become a widow. They took an immediate liking to each other and, before you know it, filed a marriage application with the registry office. Although Volodya had been warned about the dangers of combining warfarin (which he was taking to prevent valve thrombosis) with alcohol, this was his wedding—and what’s a wedding without a drink? He couldn’t deny himself the pleasure. And that was the end of him: cerebral hemorrhage.
The town of N. owes its relative prosperity—cultural, medical, architectural—to non-natives, be they summer people or those who have come to stay. Like the United States, N. was created by immigrants. It was the summering intelligentsia that rebuilt the church on Resurrection Hill (in Soviet times, it had served as a bakery and, later, a warehouse for consumer goods). It is they who put on the concerts and the annual art exhibitions, they who give jobs to the locals and eat at the cafe. The mild aversion the locals feel toward them is perfectly understandable: the French resent America, the Greeks resent Germany—dependence on others is a heavy burden. But even among the teenagers of N. there’s no real native/non-native opposition.
The children play make-believe, pretending they’re coquettes, ladies from Moscow. They plop themselves down on sunspots on the floor and intone, “Ah, a tanning bed!” But coquetry is not the exclusive domain of the young:
“I think I ought to tell you,” an eighty-year-old lady from Moscow sighs, “that when I was a sweet little three-year-old, my parents had a terrible quarrel.”
Does she understand that this is a doctor’s office?
“My father grabbed me by my tiny little arms and dangled me over the railing of a bridge, shouting to my mother that he’d let me go if she didn’t listen to him. Ever since then, my left ventricle has been dilated.”
Her left ventricle is not dilated. No, this finding doesn’t suit her at all.
The hierarchy of the summer people is established independently of their relative wealth or, shall we say, the architectural merits of their dachas. The most important determining factor is an individual’s accomplishment—but not in Moscow. If their book came out in America, or their painting was purchased by a museum in Berlin, or their tour in Japan met with success—that counts. Go to the head of the table, say a few words. The natives, too, respect international success: at the funeral of a wonderful painter Eduard Steinberg, who was a friend to all (he lived in Paris but was buried here), the police donned their full dress uniforms and blocked off traffic, although the drive from the church to the old cemetery only takes a minute and there are never that many cars on the road.
Great-grandfather, on mother’s side, wound up in the town of N. not entirely by choice, like many political prisoners (he was sentenced in 1933, one of fourteen doctors accused of poisoning Maxim Gorky). He came here after a stint in Butyrka, after the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, after the War. “This is a place of refuge for our family, just in case,” he wrote in his journal. In Vladimir, where great-grandfather was the head physician, his position became untenable when officers began to return from the front—as a former prisoner, he could be denounced and rearrested at any moment, all because someone else wanted his job. He came in the summer of ‘46, along with his ten-year-old granddaughter. In those days, the journey from Moscow took twelve hours: first there was the train, then seven kilometers on foot, following a rickshaw loaded up with your luggage, and, finally, a steamer up the Oka.
Here, the old house on Pushkin Street received many guests—some renowned, some unknown. The town of N. was lucky to find itself located at exactly the right distance from forbidden Moscow. In the early ’70s, a few years after great-grandfather’s death, the house was looted and demolished—and so the family’s relationship with the town was ruptured. The only things that remain from those early days are the fireplace tiles, which mother salvaged, and the huge linden tree in the corner of the property. The only childhood memories left are of this linden tree and of certain smells: a damp basement, dust caked by the rain.
In ’46 there was only one security officer of the NKVD in town, but by the ’70s the number of secret policemen had risen to eleven—so as to deal with all the “enemies” that had settled here. These days the number is hard to determine.
Europeans, in any case, feel very comfortable here. An Italian mosaicist and his wife have lived here for several years now. The vicissitudes of Russian history don’t shock him:
“Che cazzo! We were gays before you were walking upright.”
One time his wife went into an Armenian shop and he stayed outside, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette beside a crate of cucumbers.
“How much?” asks a customer.
The Italian shrugs: “Italiano.” He doesn’t speak Russian.
“I know, I know—Italiano. But how much for the Italiano cucumbers?”
The natives are used to seeing foreigners. Germans, French, Indians, Americans—you name it. They don’t consider Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Moldovans foreigners, and they don’t discriminate against them: What can you do? They didn’t choose to be what they are.
A new worker appeared at the car wash—Surik (Suren). What happened to the other fellow?
“Gagik. They locked him up. Shot an Azerbaijani.”
They gave Gagik four years, which seems very lenient.
“Not ‘shot,’ daddy—‘shot at,’” Surik’s ten-year-old son cuts in. The boy goes to school during the year but helps his father in the summer.
Tourists come up on weekends, visit the Church of the Resurrection, the sculpture of the “sleeping boy” (Victor Borisov-Musatov is buried beneath it), and the Tsvetaeva Stone. The local tourist guide tells a story: in the early ’60s, a student named Senya O. arrived from Kyiv—“a boy in shabby trousers,” as Tsvetaeva’s daughter put it, a pure, romantic soul, the type they call “lovely” today. He had only one desire: to fulfill the dying wish of the Poet whose verse had pierced his heart. “I would like to be buried,” she had written, “in one of those graves with a silver dove on it.” The stone Senya found at the local quarry and placed where Tsvetaeva had wished to be laid to rest was removed after a few days. Good deeds—such as aid (mostly weaponry) for that era’s “children of Dzhankoy,” who were then in Africa and the Middle East—could only be performed by the government. Without the state’s consent, one couldn’t even erect a monument to Khrushchev, much less to Tsvetaeva. But the intelligentsia of N., and especially its female contingent, appreciated Senya’s impulsive gesture. “Charming and taming them (the intelligentsia) is child’s play. Go ahead, pick them up with your bare hands”—Senya had succeeded fabulously, but not everyone was impressed by his resourcefulness: he became the subject of one of father’s short stories. And so the town of N. was inoculated against excessive enthusiasm and good deeds long ago. The current Stone (“Marina Tsvetaeva Would Have Liked to Rest Here”) was placed during perestroika. As for Senya, he now makes his home far away, in New York, and writes “pleasant poems for children, so that they don’t forget Russian.”
The shops, cafes, hotels, and B&Bs—these are run by local entrepreneurs, who have their own distinct charm. They’re accustomed to circumventing the state and despise anyone who “made a bundle” through “connections”—people like that, they say, want a bite of everything. These entrepreneurs use the language of the criminal world (“fence,” “shark,” “fall guy”), but you can come to them for help without hesitation; they might turn you down, but they’ll do it with a light touch—no “unfortunately, you just don’t fit our program.” In fact, without the secret donations of one of these entrepreneurs, the hospital would have gone under long ago. When he first brought in his ninety-two-year-old grandmother, he was greatly surprised that neither the doctors nor the nurses has asked her what on earth she expected from them, at her age—obviously, she wanted what everyone wants: to live longer and to feel well. She received treatment, felt better. Some years later she passed away, but the grandson keeps on donating.
All institutions of practical significance (municipal services, schools, the pension fund, the treasury, the registry office) are headed, as is usual in Russia, by middle-aged women; the life of the town rests on their shoulders. They’re not averse to socializing, don’t shy away from a drink and a song (“How about it, girls?"), and are far more pleasant than the fellows with leather murses. Sometimes they seem totally comprehensible, sometimes not. Here's an example. There was an internist at the clinic a few years back—tall and melancholy, very mediocre. Later he turned up in Moscow, clerking at a drugstore. At the hospital’s New Year’s party, between the appetizers and the dancing, the women discussed the vegetables this internist used to sell at the market, as a sideline. His professional degradation didn’t strike them as tragic, they were just sorry he’d left town: he used to sell such good vegetables.
The most important civic event for the inhabitants of N. is the Saturday market. There’s no telling what you might hear between the stalls:
“God didn’t grant Patriarch Alexey health.”
A sigh in response:
“Or life, either.”
Another pair of women shoppers:
“Why are you feeding her”—probably the interlocutor’s mother or mother-in-law—“like that? Just you watch, she’ll live to a hundred.”
“My husband’s liver is totally shot. The doctors say he’s only hanging on ‘cause he’s got a good stomach and pancreas.”
There hasn't been a high-profile murder in many years, not since the gambling industry was banned. That and the shortening of compulsory military service are, it seems, the only positive reforms that can be ascribed to the current regime. Of course, with the passage of time, things are easily forgotten: for example, after Yeltsin had bypass surgery, the number of these procedures immediately increased tenfold all across the country—but who now remembers such accomplishments?
In terms of headline-grabbing crimes, there was the armed bank robbery (the culprits shut off the town’s electricity, stole and dumped a car) and the art heist, where the thieves claimed they were conducting a surprise security check, tied up the gallery’s guard and director, and made off with two canvases—one by Vasily Polenov, the other by Ivan Aivazovsky. In both cases, the wrongdoers got away with it. There was also the assault at one of the B&Bs. Thirteen of the guests showed up at the hospital after being attacked with baseball bats in the middle of the night—at the behest, it turned out, of the B&B’s proprietor, who took offense at a joke one of them had made. The story was reported throughout the country—a new development in the hospitality sector.
On one occasion, in 2008, the police had to get involved: someone was going door to door, slipping leaflets into mailboxes that said all the local doctors were working for the CIA (this was before the law against “foreign agents” went into effect). The leaflets read something like this: “Alien extremists have come to feed the homeless so as to transplant organs.” Echoes of the Stalinist “Doctors’ Plot.” No one was caught, but things eventually quieted down and returned to normal. A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up? Forget it. In any case, the police department itself is not perceived as a danger in N. Relations between medical professionals and policemen are familiar, friendly: they too are state employees, and they have wives, children, parents—they all need doctors now and then.
Here’s a story—fresh, but from Moscow. An ambulance arrives and a nurse rushes into the office of the doctor on call: “They’ve brought in a traffic cop!” A joyous bustle: the traffic cop has had a myocardial infarction. The cop’s wife starts weeping and pleading: “He works at a desk, not on the street”—that is to say, don’t take his life, have mercy. No one in N. would ever have thought of such a thing.
The Christian denominations represented in N. are the Pentecostals (they have a church up on a hill), the Seventh-day Adventists (they have a school, a university, and an institute for Bible translation across the river)—both of these groups keep a low profile—and, of course, the Orthodox, who make up the majority.
A pretentious middle-aged visitor is none too impressed with the town. He sighs:
“Everything around here is so gray, so dull. And Moscow’s not much better.”
So what’s better? “Mount Athos. The salvation of the soul… What else does one need?” In fact, he needs a lot else besides—and he needs it done well, quickly, and for free. That’s precisely why he showed up here at the hospital.
The religiosity of old Olga Mikhailovna, who suffers from congestive heart failure, is far less complicated, far more cheerful:
“I’m a communist by conviction. I even pay my party dues. But I’m superstitious, you know, and I feel it isn’t only your pills that help—I feel God helps me too.”
Another Orthodox woman, the head clerk of an office supply warehouse, reasons thus:
“I’ll quit smoking, I promise. I consulted with the elder at the monastery about it, too. A proper Orthodox person isn’t supposed to smoke, isn’t that so? I never smoke when I’m on a pilgrimage, but when I get back, I always start up again—my nerves get to me. I work in a warehouse, and I’m responsible for everything. By the way, doctor, you need any staplers, folders, markers? We’ve got tons of them lying around.”
The head of the warehouse laughs. She’s brought a huge bag full of office supplies. Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness—of all the Gospel’s commandments, this one people keep without fail.
And then there’s Nastya, a girl of thirteen with developmental delay. A nurse draws her blood and, in order to distract her, asks:
“What’s your zodiac sign?”
“Don’t have one,” she responds. “I’m Orthodox.”
The girl’s answer perplexes the nurse: she’s Orthodox too, after all, but she has a zodiac sign.
Anyone can enter intensive care, and priests are no exception. Sometimes they’re asked to come to visit patients who are near death—to anoint them, offer the last rites.
“Is there any hope she might pull through?” asks the young priest. Extreme unction is a laborious business, so he might as well make sure. A major stroke, mechanical ventilation, several days in a deep coma. Who actually believes in miracles, aside from a patient’s closest relatives?
Another priest tried to discourage several women from having abortions. He walked into the OB-GYN wing and made a powerful, impassioned speech, yet the women not only refused to listen but also gave him an earful: one was out of work, another had no husband, and a third had no place to call home. “You should have thought of that earlier,” the priest responded and left.
Parish priests have precious little freedom themselves—even less than doctors. Somehow they quickly became part of the system: school, army, hospital, prison. Not all of them, thank God, but most of them. People had expected a great deal from the Church when it was still under the Soviet yoke—and even afterwards, throughout the ’90s—but the only thing it has actually taught them is what they can and cannot consume during Lent.
There’s a lot of longing for the past around here, even among those who never really experienced it. It’s best not to talk politics with patients, but if a woman has an unusual mitral valve, it’s tempting to think that she herself must be interesting. Natalya is a thirty-six-year-old journalist and amateur pilot who misses the USSR:
“Now that was strength.”
So there you are: nothing interesting. She barely even lived in the USSR—but apparently Young Communists are born, not made. And the next patient is an old woman. When asked why she hasn’t been taking her medications, she replies:
“Who needs us now, anyway? Back in the day, things were different…”
Her meaning is clear. Back in the day the state cared about its citizens. Both she and Natalya feel orphaned, though the latter still has her parents. The old woman is easier to understand: she’s all alone. And yet it’s unlikely that any of her peers in the United Kingdom would fail to take their pills because Her Majesty wasn’t personally concerned about their high blood pressure.
Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is now widespread and finds expression in a series of clichés: everyone was afraid of us, and there was a lot to be thankful for—the healthcare was free (in what sense?), literary magazines had enormous circulations, and the state put out good animated cartoons. After the Jews came out of Egypt, they too looked back fondly on their time in captivity, remembering the “flesh pots,” the fish, which they “did eat in Egypt freely,” the cucumbers, the melons, and maybe even the fine Egyptian healthcare and education systems.
“You who from birth / Wore orphan’s garb – / Don’t mourn an Eden / You’ve not seen.”44From the second of Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Verses for My Son” (1932). The Soviets leveled Tsvetaeva’s dacha to the ground long ago. The place is now the outdoor dance floor of that very B&B where the pond is stocked with fish and guests are treated so unkindly. Across from the hospital is the Tsvetaeva Museum, where the only personal item on display is a mirror in which she might have examined her reflection. The young woman who works there ends her tour by reciting, in a high voice, “To My Poems” and announcing that their turn has finally come.55In Vladimir Nabokov’s translation, the final four lines of Tsvetaeva’s “To My Poems” (1913) read: “Amidst the dust of bookshops, wide dispersed / And never purchased there by anyone, / Yet similar to precious wines, my verse / Can wait: its turn shall come.”
There aren’t that many real fanatics around, but here’s one: his father was purged and executed in 1938, and he himself was put away for protesting against the Soviet invasion of Hungary two decades later (Khrushchev released him soon after—and he hates Khrushchev). Now he’s in his early eighties, same age as mother would have been; he knew her English teacher, Margarita Yakovlevna Rabinovich—“they sent her to the camps too”—and that’s how the conversation started. He teaches philosophy, theology, and social studies at a technical institute in Moscow, and here, in the Cardiology Lab, preaches Stalinism.
What about his father?
“Sure, there were excesses… But Churchill himself praised our leader…” Even Stalinists value international success.
The professor isn’t risking anything. Calm, sober K., an engineer from the Moscow region, is a different case.
K. needs anticoagulants, to prevent thrombosis. It’s a high-risk matter. He has two options—one cheap, the other expensive, and neither is right for him; the cheap one requires frequent tests, which his local clinic cannot provide, while the expensive one costs nearly four thousand rubles a month, which he doesn’t have.
“We used to earn good money, but things have changed since the crisis. Have to pay for Crimea.”
The right attitude, it seems.
“So, are we prepared to pay?”
“Sure we’re prepared,” K. replies unexpectedly.
“And what about those who aren’t?”
“They can lay down and die.”
He’ll be the first to do so, of course—but “Merde! The Guard dies but does not surrender!”66Words attributed to Pierre Cambronne (1770-1842), a general who played an important role in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. So be it. There’s no hope for recovery in either case: both the professor and K. are grown men, established in their fields—both have read The Gulag Archipelago, both know about the mass executions at the Butovo Firing Range, the camp at Solovki, the Katyn massacre, yet they prefer military might, the space program, and Soviet hockey.
Not everyone, however, can maintain such ideological purity.
“Nina Ivanovna, you lived in Moscow, yes? What sort of work did you do?”
“Oh, I had the best job in the world—polisher at the First Moscow Watch Factory. You walk into the workshop…” Nina Ivanovna closes her eyes. “Oh, I still dream of that smell—there’s just nothing like it.”
“So why did you leave?”
“They started delaying our paychecks, so I left. What the heck do I need to swallow all that dust for?”
“Of all the warders, doctors are the best,” mother’s old classmate, Victor Brailovsky, used to say after serving a term as a “prisoner of Zion” in the early ’80s.77Victor Brailovsky (b. 1935) was a Soviet-born Jewish computer scientist and mathematician who became a “refusenik” in the early 1970s, and served as a “prisoner of Zion” for his activism between 1981 and 1984, before being allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1987. A dubious compliment, but well earned. Russian healthcare, like its Soviet predecessor, is part of the system of oppression—release from the hospital denied, return to work prohibited, banned from giving birth, operation refused: “Condition serious, temperature normal, visiting hours from six to eight.” No transfer to another hospital: “Won't survive the journey—don’t ask why.” Can’t do this, can’t do that: no coffee, no flights, no stress, no sleeping on one’s left side, no driving, no heavy lifting, no setting foot in the wing without shoe covers. “What did you expect? You spend all day in front of the computer, you’re over sixty (or a hundred)—it’s too late for a doctor’s help. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Like they used to say in the old days, if you don’t commit any crimes, you won’t wind up in the camps.” There are all sorts of regulations, standards, plans. But medical professionals are also capable of sympathy. A senior doctor once gave some excellent advice to a young violinist who was having trouble with her back: “Just hold the violin in your other hand.” They can also tie someone up in a bureaucratic nightmare and then sigh, “That’s the sort of country we live in.”
The idea that you should act in the interests of the patient and not in those of the institution where you work, or of the healthcare system, or for “the greatness, glory, and benefit of the Fatherland,” sounds as revolutionary and paradoxical as the commandment to love your enemies. Sometimes, on the very same day, one sees several patients who have been operated on completely needlessly, without any indications, at some of the country’s finest medical institutions. These patients sense that they’ve been exposed to risk for no reason, that their conditions haven’t improved, but they cannot bring themselves to believe that this is possible, just as people in the ’20s, ’30s, and later decades couldn’t believe that they could be imprisoned and executed without cause, to meet some quota.
One patient—an internist from Moscow—has come to get a second opinion: she’s been scheduled for surgery. No other complaints. She has mitral valve prolapse, moderate-to-severe, but there’s no need for an operation yet. She herself doesn’t want to understand what’s wrong with her, doesn’t want any information: doesn’t use e-mail. All attempts to explain the situation (the anterior leaflet is more difficult to repair than the posterior, etc.) are in vain:
“I’m just a precinct doctor…”
“But there’s a difference between a precinct internist and a precinct policeman.”
She just smiles: all she needs to know is that there’s no need for an operation. Now she feels better.
She tells a story: everyone at her clinic in Moscow plans to attend a state-sanctioned protest against healthcare optimization—that is, against doctors losing their jobs—but she isn’t sure whether it’s worth showing up.
There was a rumor that all the doctors at her clinic would be sacked on Friday, at a big meeting. Well, that’s reason enough for a protest. But then the bosses postponed the meeting, so no one’s been fired. And maybe they won’t fire anyone at all—so why protest? And what if the bosses get wind of it? What if they see it on TV?
“But isn’t that the whole point of protesting—for the bosses to get wind of it?”
“Easy for you to talk.”
A good friend, a painter who also lives in N., tells another story. Once, back in Paris, he had to paint a nude for an exhibition and needed a slender female model. So he went down to the infamous Place Pigalle and found a prostitute—a very slender woman, just the right body type. Back at his studio, he told her to undress and prepared the canvas. To his surprise, she refused to pose, and even took offense: “I’m a prostitute, not a model.” There’s an Italian version of the same story: “Signora, I am a thief, not a postman,” a bandit replies when asked to return the documents in the purse he snatched. That’s European-style professional self-respect for you—a stark contrast to our benighted physicians, who don’t know how to use email and round out their salaries by selling vegetables at the market. “Perfectly natural,” as Epikhodov says in The Cherry Orchard. “Abroad everything is in full complexity.”
Asking acquaintances and strangers for donations, consulting textbooks, seeking the advice of colleagues in the hospital, in Moscow, in the US—here one can do what one feels is right. There are, however, illnesses that simply can’t be cured in N.—both by law and because we lack the equipment and specialists; patients have to be sent to Moscow or, worst case scenario, to Region. One such illness is cancer, of any kind. The backwardness of our healthcare system is nowhere more evident than in the realm of oncology: “Yes, you’ve got a tumor”—though sometimes they don’t even come out and say that, and instead use “disease”—“but we have a queue of people in your condition, and besides, your EKG’s bad. Go home, get your heart in order, and come back in four months.” Of course, by that point it’s the last stage: “treatment at the place of residence.” Why should one pity the “doomed” (as the people in the Baltic states viewed the Jews during the war)? Why get all worked up? God forbid—that might lead to “professional burnout.” The ill aren’t pushed off cliffs or shot, they’re just denied treatment. And the people are used to it: some things are important—the Olympic games, Crimea—while old biddies, and sick ones at that, don’t matter a whit. Still, we aren’t animals, we build “hospices”: a fashionable word, and a fashionable institution—the authorities like it very much. (In point of fact, hospices are designed to prevent excess care—to make sure, say, that old men with advanced dementia don’t receive valve replacements; but in our case, even perfectly lucid men and women over seventy can’t hope for that kind of surgery.)
An Avar man named Ahmad offered an example of true courage. His story, which ended well, made the rounds of the hospital.
Ahmad lives deep in the provinces, far from the town of N., and works as a locksmith. Never mind Europe or America—he’s never even been to Moscow. A few years ago he began to lose weight and developed some strange pains. He went to the clinic, where they discovered a tumor. Next stop, cancer ward: complicated treatment, examination of the heart and lungs, lots of paperwork and referrals. He went to a famous clinic in Moscow, also to no avail. It wasn’t yet time for a hospice (the popular term is “croaker”), but Ahmad realized he had months, not years, so he began to contact his family. It turned out he had a second cousin in Belgium, who told him about that country’s excellent healthcare system. Now Ahmad had a goal: to get to Belgium. He spent all his savings (two thousand euros) on a bribe for a Schengen visa; the visa didn’t come through, but he got his money back. Then he bade farewell to his family and took the bus to Brest in Belarus. From there he crossed the border into Poland (there’s a well-established method) and hitchhiked through that country and Germany (where the healthcare is no worse than in Belgium, but his second cousin never mentioned this). Though he didn’t speak a single word of any foreign language, he somehow reached Belgium, where he surrendered himself to the authorities and asked for asylum, never mentioning his illness.
Ahmad was sent to a camp for displaced persons. No armed guards in watchtowers, no dogs, no barbed wire—just a room for four in a hostel in the center of Brussels. The food was good, and they even gave him money. It takes a few months to be granted (or not granted) refugee status—time Ahmad didn’t have—but he never asked to see a doctor, he just waited patiently to be summoned.
After he underwent surgery (apparently successful) in one of the primary hospitals in Brussels and finished his course of chemotherapy, Ahmad declared that he missed his family and wished to go home. At public expense, through international organizations, Ahmad was flown back from Belgium—accompanied by a doctor, who shared this story. As a parting gift, he received an enormous supply of opiates, for which, hopefully, he’ll have no use.
Ahmad shows great dignity without a hint of arrogance. His valor, his desire to live bring to mind Tolstoy’s “Tatar” thistle from Hadji Murat: “But what energy and tenacity!”
“Doctor, what is ‘apoplexy’?”
“It’s when your arms and legs go numb.”
“Well, my wife calls me ‘numbskull’ – does that count?”
Understandable: A friendly pair that does everything together—shopping, drinking, giving the cardiologist a headache.
The next patient likes the hospital too. He looks around the Major Cardiology Lab:
“Marina Tsvetaeva would have liked to rest here.” Also understandable: A member of the intelligentsia come from afar—took a stroll by the river, saw the Stone.
Understanding is the main condition of life in the town of N. When people hear the barking of an unfamiliar dog or the honking of a neighbor’s car horn, they look through the window—there shouldn’t be any mysteries.
A patient has had a major heart attack, with complications, and required attention all evening. Now, in the morning, he wants to go home.
“Must be crazy. We’d better strap him to the bed,” says a nurse.
No, his mind is clear, if a bit quirky:
“Do you know today’s date?”
“The day of the founding of the All-Union Pioneer Organization.”
We Google it and, sure enough, he’s right: May 19. How did he get here?
Right. So he drove himself, somehow made it without crashing, and left the car by the entrance. Now he’s afraid something might happen to it.
“We could move it for you. Just give us the keys.”
“What are you talking about? Your medicines make my liver hurt.” A lie.
There’s no persuading him. Oh well, one more patient released to relieve the “stress of confinement” (a marvelous formulation!): everyone has the right to go. It’s early, of course—not even twenty-four hours has passed—and the risk is great, but this isn’t a prison. All the electrodes and catheters are removed. But don’t change the sheets quite yet: he’ll be back before long. And indeed, about twenty minutes later, the phone rings:
“I’m dying… the elevator.”
He had taken his car back to his garage and returned by taxi.
Another man, named Nikolay, has “ABBA” tattooed on his arm. He doesn’t look like a disco fan, or a speaker of Aramaic. It isn’t polite to ask about such things, but curiosity wins out in the end. The tattoo used to read “ALLA,” the name of his first girlfriend. His wife was jealous, so, in the name of love, he suffered a few more pinpricks and had the Ls changed to Bs.
Life in and around the hospital flows by as a flickering sequence of faces, characters, and situations. Over twelve thousand patients, including outpatients, have passed through these doors in the past few years—most of them more than once. If one doesn’t write things down, they fade from memory: the burn victims, Volodya the convict, the polisher from the watch factory, the devout warehouse clerk, and K. the engineer (“The Guard dies but does not surrender!”—sure enough, he had a stroke). Even the children of Dzhankoy seem like ancient history, although not even three years have passed since that day. And here’s a patient who last visited in 2009 but is offended that no one recognizes him:
“You’re getting old, doc. The name’s Krymtsov, with a ‘y.’” How else can one spell it?
Life in N. can be monotonous, but—“ground beneath me, and sky above me”—it’s cozy, warm. Some things are touching, others annoying. The political system, as well as the mood of the citizenry, is disappointing, but one isn’t given the same gift—freedom—twice. Major changes probably won’t come in this lifetime; with Brezhnev one just had to wait—there was an age gap of nearly sixty years. The soul, however, refuses to believe the worst (perhaps it lacks the imagination to do so), and then there’s mother to look after. Besides, it isn’t just Young Communists who keep springing up on their own, but also members of the intelligentsia—young colleagues who overtake you before you know it. It seems everything in N. is as clear as can be. The events below, however, force one to view the town from an unexpected angle.
ICD-10-CM Code I72.8: “Aneurysm of other specified arteries.” An absurd formulation, but—one might say under other circumstances—not without its beauty.
“The death of one’s mother leads to a mental illness that lasts at least a year,” Archpriest Ilya Shmain, a friend and a teacher, once said. “No matter how ready you think you were, no matter how old you may be.”
The doctors did what they could: surgery, multiple blood transfusions. Four days, each filled with activity. The illusion of control fell by the wayside, as did all grudges, even those held from earliest childhood. There were miracles—of the sort only a patient’s closest relatives believe in. Everything seemed to work out, except for the main thing—victory over death; disaster is often accompanied by many minor items of good news.
Instructors of creative writing in the US ask their students to write about the death of their parents: thousands of essays each year—thousands of deaths, thousands of writers. Speaking to David Remnick, Jonathan Franzen took a light tone. After receiving the sad news, he finished scrambling some eggs: “I like scrambled eggs.”88“Jonathan Franzen Talks with David Remnick,” 2011 New Yorker Festival. Not especially interesting—everyone remembers Camus: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”99Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage International, 1988), p. 3.
She spent the last years of her life in N., in a newly built house, aided by homecare workers—older women from various former republics of the USSR. Dependence on others is a heavy burden: she was often rude to these women, mean. This was angering to see, but now an explanation suggested itself: the ideal of equality falls apart when you’re lying helpless and the other person is standing upright. It was now also clear why she had kept lapsing into German: her profound confusion about what was happening would transport her to Saxony, where she’d lived between the ages of eleven and thirteen.
Her last words: “If you give them”—in response to Father Konstantin’s offer of the sacraments. He had come from Moscow just in time. An hour later she stopped breathing. Then: notification of acquaintances, a requiem mass among loved ones, night, and—wherever you step, whatever you think about—the mystery of it.
She had never allowed herself to talk much of death—such talk was unchaste, meant to provoke pity—but there’s no doubt that she wanted to be buried here. Her feelings toward the town were strong and not even entirely clear. However, no other member of the family is buried in N. (great-grandfather requested that his ashes be scattered in the river). There’s no plot in the cemetery.
And now it’s morning, a new day, and time to ask the Mayor—a cheerful mustachioed fellow who was appointed after the scandal at the hospital—to allocate a plot. But no, he doesn’t have the power: it would require a resolution of the deputies or some such nonsense, which there isn’t even time to decipher.
The middle-aged ladies who actually run the town come up with a solution in fifteen minutes flat.
“Just add ‘in the family plot’ to the notice.”
The attempt to pay them is in vain. No one asks, “You out of your mind, dear?” (as an old woman once asked father when he tried to pay for the milk she gave him to quench his thirst on a hot day). They simply say:
“You’re famous around here.” They would have done the same for any actor, athlete, maybe even gangster.
At the exit, an old acquaintance of mother’s—whose Armenian family had fled Baku in ’88 and stayed at her place in Moscow for a long time, and who now heads the local branch of Housing and Communal Services—comes up and asks:
“Why didn’t you come to me first?”
Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. An oversight.
Endless activity—paperwork, arrangements for the wake, negotiations with the Fathers Superior of both churches: it would be good to have the service officiated by Father Konstantin, a close friend (“No, he’s not banned”—the magic phrase that needed to be uttered). The pursuit of practical, everyday solutions in a situation that is anything but everyday.
The employees of the funeral home are not possessed of the finest human qualities, and the hospital’s relations with them are complicated (one time, for instance, they mixed up two bodies)—but there’s no choice, no “other club.” Yet this time they behave humanely. Their booklet offers a huge variety of coffins, including imported models. A joke suggests itself—about “love for domestic coffins”—but perhaps it’s better not to joke.1010The reference is to an unfinished poem by Pushkin, from 1830, which begins: “Two feelings feed our hearts, / And these will not be softened — / Love for our native hearths, / Love for ancestral coffins.” It’s painful to know that she has spent two nights in the hands of strangers.
And then the service and burial are over. The church showed a great deal of love, both towards her and towards the living. And more people showed up than expected—the crowd wouldn’t have been so large in Moscow. One might say that everything went well. Her old co-workers spoke of her gift for making her presence felt while keeping silent. “A captive spirit”—that’s what her closest, most devoted friend called her (once again, Tsvetaeva came in handy).1111“A Captive Spirit” is the title of Tsvetaeva’s 1934 essay on the poet and novelist Andrei Bely (1880-1934). See Tsvetaeva, A Captive Spirit: Collected Prose, translated and edited by J. Marin King (New York: Abrams Press, 2009).
In terms of incidents, Father Konstantin brought a homeless fellow, whom he’d taken in to live with him at the church in Moscow. The fellow hadn’t touched alcohol for a long while, but on the eve of the funeral he went into a state—got drunk and created a scene. What was the Father to do? The man stayed in the car the whole time, locked up, and people would bring him water.
A day passed, and another—a big hurry to find someone to fence off the plot. There’s really no reason to hurry, but something needs to be done: the illusion that one can still help, somehow. A new contact in the phone: Alexey Grave. “Grave” isn’t his surname, it’s shorthand for his place of work—an aid to memory. The observation about the locals “drinking less” doesn’t apply to him: he shows up to examine the plot without his tape measure. Such ineptitude, but what’s the use in getting mad? He’ll go fetch it.
In the meantime one can look around: the gate is open, no guards, no one selling flowers and wreaths, complete solitude. The crosses and headstones bear familiar names: her new neighbors for eternity. A little ways to the right is Konstantin Paustovsky (1968—the very first funeral, sitting on father’s shoulders, the whole town in attendance), and to the left and down a bit is Eduard Steinberg, a good friend. But there are also certain faces one would rather encounter on a laser-etched headstone than in a dark alley. Many abandoned graves: an overturned stone—nineteenth-century, the inscription worn away, and very soft, from the local quarry (easy to pick up again); and there, behind a downed fence, a picturesque cluster of half-rotted painted crosses—blue, gray, and brown (they should stay exactly where they are). Here and there pitiful plastic flowers have been stuck in the ground: an attempt to maintain appearances with minimal resources. There are too many trees blocking the sun. Grass will have to be planted—later, of course, in May or June: is there a variety that thrives in the shade? These are entirely new concerns. Well, here comes Alexey. He’ll need help with the measurements.
Why do people come to cemeteries? Is the connection to the beloved dead actually stronger here than elsewhere? Difficult to say. And why even ask? People have always come, and they’ll continue to do so. The old cemetery of the town of N. is completely quiet. This isn’t just the absence of sound—rather, as sometimes happens in libraries or empty concert halls, the space is actually filled with silence.
The following Monday, a nurse brings a pack of banknotes to the Major Cardiology Lab: here, people pitched in for you. “Thank you, but…” Feelings of gratitude, awkwardness—but chiefly surprise: donations? What are we, the children of Dzhankoy?
The nurse looks as perplexed as she had in the case of the zodiac signs:
“The children of Dzhankoy? What’s that?”
The pack is made up of hundred- and thousand-ruble notes—about sixteen thousand in total. That’s no symbolic gesture: together with the state’s allowance for burial expenses (just under 5,570 rubles), it’s more than enough to cover a modest funeral in the town of N. As to the children of Dzhankoy—who knew one might someday wind up in their shoes?
The old cemetery soon takes its place in the large home that the town of N. has become: together with the hospital, the houses of old friends, the Italian mosaicist’s studio, the forests, ravines, and expanses, “the sleeping boy,” and the footpath along the riverbank, beside which a few tethered punts lie upside down. The boats awaken recollections: there was a time, over forty years ago, when one would hide under these punts, having said or done something wrong, and discuss one’s actions with grown-ups—it was a sort of confessional, like the Catholics have. Beneath the punts it was dark and cool, and smelled like a damp basement. Mother and father would sit nearby on the grass: she’d usually keep quiet, and might even be dozing, while he’d be talking heatedly. Much has changed since then, but the punts are the same, and N. too: a town and a home.
Time to deal with her things. Everything unique—letters, old photographs, tape recordings, diaries—must be kept. All medical and household items, all the stuff just lying around, must be given or thrown away. Photographs of the last three or four years present the greatest difficulty. Life during these years demanded enormous effort; it was tied up in endless attempts to slow the downward slide. The photographs can’t be destroyed, but it’s painful to look at them. And here is a giant folder devoted to a legal case (unsuccessful) against the authorities of N. back in ’73; it takes nearly all Sunday to sort through it.
There are complaints, regulations, decisions to initiate legal proceedings and then to halt them, telegrams, notifications, inventories, open letters to the newspaper October. The maneuvers of the old regime look perfectly contemporary: opening the house and letting the neighbors ransack it, along with garden; allocating a new plot of land on Resurrection Hill, ordering that every piece of the house be moved there, at public expense, and then, one day, bulldozing it down to the ground, having cancelled their initial decree after declaring it illegal. The only difference was they never told you to sue them—back then you couldn’t take the authorities to court.
An inventory of 1 Pushkin Street. Among the witnesses is the local music teacher, and the first item is “a beat-up grand, needs tuning.” Every object is paired with a derogatory epithet: the bucket is “rusty,” the cabinets are “homemade,” and the quilt is “plain.” The personality of the Chairman of the Regional Executive Committee—whose mannerisms great-grandfather described as those of an old-school provincial tragedian—also seems perfectly familiar. This was his “benefit” night, and the chairman performed with the ease of a virtuoso; they say he really hated summer people. Ever since then the lot on Pushkin Street has been occupied by something far worse, far more terrifying than emptiness: a hulking mass of gray brick—the House of Children’s Creativity—which was boarded up long ago.
Great-grandfather’s diaries feature a brief reflection on having to treat one of the town’s authorities: “Tonight I washed up very thoroughly in front of the burning fireplace. The radio was playing The Magic Flute. Earlier in the day I had to visit a critically ill patient, a member of the Regional Committee, and after encountering his disease and his unkempt home, I was all the more grateful for my own comfort and health—a blessing from God,” writes a disenfranchised man in his sixty-fifth year. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s fate did indeed prove tragic: he got drunk, drove his Volga into a tree, smashed his chest against the steering wheel and died at the scene.
The documents that follow are much more rousing. “The Restoration of Historical Justice,” nothing less. One’s own handwriting is easy to recognize. The ’90s—the gift of freedom (“How mightily beat the Russian heart at the word Fatherland!”).1212A line from Pushkin’s short story “The Blizzard.” See Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction, translated by Paul Debreczeny (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), p. 83. The beginning of an interesting life: a meeting with the hospital’s Chief of Staff, almost by chance. He had referred a patient to the institute in Moscow; her condition improved, and then he himself came to visit. He shared his memories of great-grandfather, who had once lent him a marvelous scythe. The Chief of Staff had held on to this scythe all those years, waiting for the heirs to show up—bit by bit, circumstances improve. Spring of ’93: the allocation of a plot of land of such-and-such a size within the town limits—here’s the decree.
Construction did not move quickly. Visits were brief, in the warmer months, and only once, in early spring of ’98 or ’99, a sudden escape—together.
An awful story—best to keep it short. On a day off, an invitation to a palatial estate in the suburbs: marble, glass, ceramic tiles. Mother's classmates, who’d immigrated to the States, had asked her to send them something through their children or grandchildren. A predatory glance: “Ah, you’re a doctor! Why don’t you stay for lunch?” Between courses of hors d’oeuvres, the woman explains: just imagine, four babies died in her uterus, until she finally found a surrogate mother—a red-blooded Ukrainian girl, strong as an ox. The girl gave birth to their Vitalik—there he is, a big boy already, sitting at the table. But then (the women’s eyes sparkle again), when she and her husband wanted to have another child, using the same surrogate (an unexpected note of joy), the fetus upped and died in the girl’s belly!
Smoking isn’t allowed in the house, so there’s a break—shoes, coat, outside. Together, without saying a word, it’s in the car and onto the ring road (it wasn’t yet called MKAD)—music on the radio, singing, chatting. A missed turn onto Lenin Avenue—and so, might as well: off to the town of N. After all, these days, it’s only an hour-and-a-half drive, not a twelve-hour journey. Cold air nips at the face—and it’s even worse in the unheated house than out on the street. But there’s the fireplace, the “beat-up piano" (both survived from the old house), vodka, smoked sausage (“You’re just like you father!”). Time to warm up, both inside and out, and to recall yet another escape, which took place long, long ago.
Moscow Secondary School No. 31, fifth grade. The schoolmarm in charge of the class (neither her name nor her face have stuck—a complete fool: crossed out the word “inclement” in an essay because she’d never seen it before) doesn’t let students leave early even if they bring a note from their parents. Mother pays her a visit: “You go get dressed.”
It’s winter: boots, a coat, slippers back in their bag, and out onto the dark street (classes only started at 2 p.m.). Mother: “Hurry, hurry, go!”
A classmate comes running in his slippers, catches up, grabs a hand: “Wait! Lyudmila Olegovna (or was it Larisa Valeryevna?) says you can’t leave!” Can’t fight at all—and yet, somehow, the classmate goes down in the snow, face first. Now run, run, and never return to School No. 31 again.
July and August were cold and rainy, but they gave way to a nice autumn, warm and dry. Time to wrap up admissions and go down there—to rake the yellowish leaves off the grass (had to be sown several times, but grew in eventually, despite the shade), to sit a while on the bench hammered together by the same Alexey, to read.
“We must leave on one side the beliefs which fill up voids and sweeten what is bitter. The belief in immortality. The belief in the utility of sin: etiam peccata. The belief in the providential ordering of events—in short the ‘consolations’ which are ordinarily sought in religion,” writes Simone Weil.1313Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (London and New York: Routledge, 2004). A step too far, isn’t it? In any case, there’s really no desire to contemplate such things—all interest in human wisdom has evaporated.
“The best way to see this town is from the belly of a bomber,” wrote Brodsky. But that was about Moscow.1414Lines from Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “A Performance” (1986). (The capital took its revenge on him, by means of an opulent monument: hands thrust rakishly into his trouser pockets, Italian shoes on his feet, face turned up to the sun as if he were blind.) The best way to see N., though, is from the ground—or, better yet, from beneath it. And here time doesn’t flow as it should, according to classical physics—it’s as if someone had raised it to the power of minus one. Viewed from this perspective, life tends not towards depletion, towards zero, but, on the contrary, towards repletion, fullness. Recent events slide onto one another, get lumped together, and what happened in fact gets mixed up with what never occurred—meanwhile, things from the distant past (an escape from school, a confessional punt on the riverbank, the linden on Pushkin Street) come to seem infinitely closer, infinitely more joyful than they had seemed all those years ago.
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New Criterion, The Yale Review, First Things, Jewish Quarterly, and elsewhere.