COMMUNIST RULE HAD ONLY JUST ENDED WHEN I SET OUT ON my travels. For the next few years, the overriding goal of President Yeltsin’s government would be the dismantling of the massive planned economy. Yeltsin had banned the Communist Party and implemented a program of “shock therapy”: price controls were relaxed, the currency was floated, and a mass program of privatization had begun.
Prices shot up twenty-six-fold in a single year. Russia’s colonies taking their independence had already served to dismember the old economy. Economic activity had halved and inflation was taking off. Since the Central Bank kept printing money and offering cheap credits to industry, it quickly rose to 2,000 percent, leaving the ruble worthless. By mid-1993 over 40 percent of Russians were living in poverty—as opposed to 1.5 percent in the late Soviet period.
Almost at once, the old party elite and the factory bosses started privatizing the institutions they managed. Within three to four years, 60–70 percent of state enterprises were privatized. The bosses siphoned off money and raw materials from state enterprises into co-ops, private banks, and out of Russia, into offshore companies. This was not illegal, for there was no procedure in place for transferring assets into private hands. Between 1991 and 2000 it is reckoned that $1 billion was secreted out of Russia every month.
The public were issued with vouchers worth 10,000 rubles (around $20) with which to buy a stake in this giant sell-off of state assets. But there was no framework of laws or financial institutions to regulate financial activity; so companies appeared out of nowhere, promising fairy-tale dividends to those who invested their vouchers, then disappeared with the money.
Could radically different intervention by the West have changed things? Certainly, the architect of the reforms, Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, and their implementer, Anatoly Chubais, were heavily reliant on Western advice. This came from two quarters. There were the free marketeers (the International Monetary Fund, Jeffrey Sachs, and his Harvard clan) who believed that economic man behaved the same in any circumstances: as soon as the centrally planned economy was dismantled, a free market would spring up in the space, like willow herb in a bombsite. Others argued that nothing in Russia’s culture and history had prepared its people for the marketplace. It was not just that Russia was emerging from seventy years of communism, they protested, but there was no prerevolutionary tradition to graft onto either. For under tsarism the culture of private ownership and the independent business sector were both weak. Besides, they pointed out, Russia had no institutional infrastructure to handle these changes—no legal framework, stable banking system, checks and balances. Reforms had to be introduced gradually, as in Poland, and they had to be backed by massive long-term aid and assistance from the West.
However, free market fundamentalism was at its height. Besides, Yeltsin’s economic team was driven by the need to prevent the return of communism. Any strategy of gradual reform would be subverted by the old Soviet bosses, who were still in charge. Yeltsin’s colleagues saw themselves as kamikaze pilots, whose mission it was to break the tradition of Russian autocracy and introduce Russia to the marketplace and democracy. They were indeed attacking the vested interests of everyone with power, from the old Party bosses and officials to the army and security services. By December 1992 opposition to the reforms was already so fierce that Gaidar had to resign as prime minister.
Three features of this period would throw long shadows over the future. The failure to establish the institutions of an open society would discredit the notion of liberal democracy before anyone in Russia had experienced it. The presence of Western advisers laid the seeds of bitter resentment. Finally, a collective fear of anarchy rooted in living memory generated such intense anxiety that order and stability became precious above all else.
On the political front, Yeltsin had missed the opportunity to call fresh elections after the Communist Party’s coup attempt in August 1991, when he was viewed as a national hero. So he was saddled with a parliament dominated by former Party officials and powerful Soviet-era factory managers. A coalition of communists and nationalists had united to oppose all change aimed at introducing market reforms and a liberal democracy. With every month, rumors of another communist coup grew stronger. When the courts lifted Yeltsin’s ban on the Communist Party, it made a strong comeback under its effective new leader, Gennady Zyuganov.
By the autumn of 1993 Russia appeared to be on the brink of civil war. Yeltsin and his parliament had reached an impasse. The president decided on drastic action to save his reform program. In September he banned parliament and called fresh elections. That speech triggered a bloody showdown. Armed crowds marched on Moscow’s Ostankino television center. While the “democrats” manned the barricades, nationalist and communist deputies holed up in the parliament building with their private militias. Yeltsin ordered the army to intervene. Reluctantly, it obeyed. Tanks surrounded the Russian White House and opened fire. They bombarded the deputies and their gunmen into submission, at the cost of 187 lives.
Yeltsin then implemented his plans to win a mandate for a new legislature, as well as a constitution giving him broader powers. In the elections for the new, weaker parliament (now called the Duma) voters endorsed Yeltsin’s new constitution, while punishing the more democratic candidates.
When the White House bombardment was over, a mood of suppurating resentment set in. “Freedom” had brought nothing but poverty, corruption, confiscatory privatization, and criminality
THERE BE MONSTERS
I had an appointment in Samara. The sun was high and there was no shade on the dock. I was getting anxious. I had been offered a lift to the Russian German homeland in a boat, two days’ sail down the Volga. My friend’s instructions, written in her neat Cyrillic hand, were clear: “12:00 a.m. sharp. 2 August. Samara riverfront—N. Gastello.” If I was late, she warned, the boat would not wait for me. It was now 12:30. I scanned the empty river for a glimpse of Zhenya’s boat. He had promised to take me to the area of the Russian German homeland, two days’ sail south down the Volga.
It was high season, and the railings, kiosks, flowerbeds, and crowd control notices suggested the place should be teeming with people and boats. But the mooring was empty, apart from a triple-decked Soviet cruiser whose white hull loomed over the orderly promenade. There was not a soul to be seen.
No one was taking holidays that year. The Soviet Union had been dissolved seven months ago. With inflation at 20 percent and rising, a mood of apocalyptic gloom had set in over Russia. The country had lost its colonies and the Communist Party, which ran everything in the empire, was banned. During that last terrible gasp of communism shops were empty and food was rationed. Yet the minute prices were freed, the shops filled with food. Few people could afford to buy.
Traveling anywhere that summer was hard. I had arrived from Siberia the night before, after spending weeks tracking down exiled Russian Germans. With prices rising day by day, transport was in chaos. Twice my journey had ground to a halt. In one town the buses had been “privatized” by their drivers in lieu of wages. Then my flight was grounded for lack of fuel. It only took off because a bull-necked man with a phalanx of bodyguards had a word with the pilot, and the fuel was found. I was lucky to have arrived at all. But getting to the region where I was heading would be even more of a challenge, a fact I did not yet appreciate in the general confusion.
It was one of many things I failed to grasp. When a society starts falling apart, the surface of things remains deceptively tranquil. Overprotected as I was by my Russian friends, I had not yet realized how rapidly the mood of the country was going from sweet to sour. In the euphoria of the late 1980s I had traveled freely across Russia, passed from hand to hand by welcoming new friends. Now Russia was unraveling, and it was no time for foreign travelers. I was trying to get to Marx, a small town near the city of Saratov. That was suspicious in itself, as I would soon find. But I was looking for something particular—for reasons to be hopeful.
As I stood on the empty promenade, I was not actually sure whom I was waiting for. I had never met Zhenya, just caught a glimpse of him in one of the films he had financed. He was one of a new breed in Russia, a businessman. Elena had talked a lot about him. She was the woman who adopted me as family when I wrote my first book about Russia.
One day Zhenya had walked into Moscow’s Cinema Center, where she worked, declaring that it was his mission to save Russian cinema. In one of the films he went on to fund, the director had given him a walk-on part. Elena had shown me the film. She stopped the video to point him out: “Look—that’s him! That funny little figure.” He was in the back of the shot, barely visible. Now, months later, all I could remember was that he had a straggling beard that reminded me of one of Chagall’s Jewish fiddlers.
When I told her my plan, Elena made it clear she thought I was mad to be traveling anywhere that year. But she knew I had set my heart on going to Saratov. All I needed was a few contacts there. This time no one had been able to help. Only later, when I learned that it had been a closed town, did I realize why the usual network of friendship did not extend there.
Then, one day she came home from work bursting with news. “Your trip to the Volga—it’s sorted!” she announced. Zhenya had dropped in to Elena’s office and told her he was sailing down to Saratov. She asked if I could go, too. He not only agreed, he even offered to introduce me to people there. This was one invitation I was not going to miss.
But one month later, on Samara’s empty dock, it seemed as if he had stood me up. I was hunting around on the promenade looking for someone who could help when a woman appeared on the deck of the huge cruise liner. Why not ask her? As I walked up the gangplank the ship’s name caught my eye: N. Gastello. I froze. So this was it, the boat. There in front of me all the time.
This was not all right, not at all. It could only mean that Zhenya was a mafia boss, and a big one. I had been expecting something so different, a little gin palace, perhaps, but not this. It was vast, the sort of ship that used to ply up and down the Volga, entertaining Soviet holidaymakers to the strains of martial music.
A man in a white uniform and cap had now appeared as well, and was saluting me. “You must be Susan,” the woman shouted, “I’m Olga—the cruise manager, and this is our captain, Boris Nikolaevich. We’ve been waiting for you!” I pulled myself together, shook hands, and followed Olga to my cabin. Plump and motherly, she was hardly my idea of a mafia moll. Maybe the N. Gastello was just a business venture? But no. That year no one could afford holidays.
The cabin was luxurious, with starched white sheets. Out of the porthole I watched the crew casting off. There was no going back now. When lunch was announced, I realized how hungry I was. On my travels I had been camping on floors, eating out of tins.
In the dining rooms, which were supported by gilded Corinthian columns, Olga ushered me to a seat of honor at the captain’s table. Opposite sat a young man with tattoos, a scarred vulpine face, and stubs for teeth. A dandy with a brutalized face and plucked eyebrows sat beside me. That decided it: those faces belonged to the criminal underworld. Smiling waitresses were heaping our plates with delectable food, but I had lost my appetite.
The problem was that, along with the invitation, Elena had given me something: “Zhenya said you were to take this.” Wrapped in newspaper, the brick-sized package contained stacks of rubles fresh from the bank. They were worth $100, a fortune in Russia that year. I refused the package, but Elena could be very obstinate: “I’m not taking it back! If you want to go, you’ve got to take it! Anyway, it’s nothing to him.” In the end I gave in, resolving that when I did meet Zhenya I would return his money, and we would have a laugh about it. I had been carrying it around my waist for weeks. Now I was gripped by anxiety: in Russia, accepting hospitality incurs serious obligations. A Hogarthian image flashed into my mind of Zhenya and his thuggish cronies in my London house, feet on the table.
The powdered dandy interrupted my thoughts.
“How do you know Benya then?”
“Benya—your host!” he repeated, looking surprised. Yes, he did say Benya.
“Are you all right?” asked the powdered youth.
Well, no. In Russia the name Benya is not like Tom, Dick, or Harry. It is what the writer Isaac Babel called the Jewish gangland prince in his stories of prerevolutionary Odessa. As Scrooge is to English misers, Benya is to Russian gangsters. Benya, the great extortioner, waltzes through them in multicolored clothes, splashing money around, a rogue with panache. So Elena’s friend was a literary gangster. How very Russian.
A man with yellow eyes sat down opposite and smiled, or rather leered at me. His face was long and he had a straggling beard. I smiled back politely. Then I remembered the bearded figure in the film Elena showed me. I looked again. This must be Zhenya, or rather Benya. It had to be.
How to describe what happened next between that man and me? It felt as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff, being pulled toward the edge, though Benya did no more than fix me with a pair of dreadful yellow eyes. I was spellbound, falling. The prospect was terrifying, but I was powerless to resist the pull of those eyes. It was irresistibly sweet. I came to and started to struggle. How long we battled it out I have no idea. I did pull back from the edge, but the effort left me shaken and horrified.
I got up and hurried back to my cabin. Behind I heard footsteps and a man’s voice saying “Syusan, Syusan.” There was a glimpse of those yellow eyes as I slammed the door. I sat on the bunk, thoroughly frightened, and furious with myself. What was this? I was an experienced traveler. I loved nothing better than traveling on my own. What was I frightened of? So what if the man was a mafia boss? I was in no danger on this boat. But I was not just frightened. There was something here that I could not name, something worse than that.
I had a lot to learn. The man was just a minor monster, but I came from a world which was properly mapped, where travelers ran across real dangers, not from monsters. I did not yet understand that I had left that world behind.
I must have dozed off after that. When I woke, the light through the porthole had softened. It was late afternoon, and the cabin walls were thrumming to the syncopated beat of live jazz. I lay there, watching reflections of the water playing on the ceiling, mortified by my overreaction, packing my fears away, yet reluctant to venture out of the cabin for fear of seeing Benya again.
Finally, the beat of the music lured me out, down a spiral staircase. On the landing below, a wiry suntanned American couple stood admiring the theater designs on the walls. “Great music, isn’t it? We do Dixieland, but we’re nothing compared with this lot,” said the man. A trumpeter, he had been invited to St. Petersburg for a jazz festival. When they arrived, they found the event had fallen victim to the chaos. Hearing of their plight, Benya offered them a place on his cruise. “Did you hear last night’s concert? Night after night there are these amazing musicians playing! Last night was the greatest—this singer, she’s a sort of Russian Edith Piaf. I’ve never heard anything like her …”
“So what do you make of this Benya?” the trumpeter went on.
“He’s quite a character,” the trumpeter’s wife chipped in. “Every now and then he turns up in this white Mercedes, chauffeur-driven—”
“With one hubcap missing,” added the trumpeter.
“Is he on board now?” I asked.
“Well, he was last night. You can tell when he’s coming. His girlfriend gets all dressed up. Then it’s party time! He’s quite a guy—climbs onto the car and dances on the hood, wearing these wild clothes—yellow shirt, red trousers, and green socks.”
“D’you suppose he’s mafia?” the trumpeter’s wife asked, as we walked down toward the music. I let the question go. Whoever our host was, the costume made it all too clear that he was modeling himself on Babel’s king of thieves.
The main deck was packed with people, listening to the music. Pale, plump, and dowdy, they looked reassuringly ordinary. A trombonist stepped forward and began a solo. He had the face and body of a clown. He played with an intensity that made even the babies in their sunhats stop and stare. Sleepy middle-aged men emerged from their cabins and their pudgy wives dropped their knitting.
We were held in the skein of the music. The man’s playing was as effortless as breathing. It touched something in his listeners, transmuting the pain of living in the rubble of the great socialist experiment that had been inflicted on them, their fathers and grandfathers. He played to them of the happiness which no one could take away, the happiness of this moment in the sunshine, floating down the Volga. My own anxiety ebbed away, absurd.
When the trombonist finished his solo I turned to leave and saw Benya threading through the crowd toward me, yellow eyes fixed on me, leering. He was wearing only the briefest of red trunks and a gold chain around his neck. I lost my head and dashed up the stairs, making for the cruise manager’s cabin. As I pounded on the door I heard Benya’s footsteps on the stairs. After an interminable wait the door opened: “Susan! What a lovely surprise!” Olga was standing in a large, light cabin lined in paneled, pale wood. I slipped inside and closed the door. The cabin was dotted with bouquets of dying red roses. Olga had company, two women friends.
“Is everything all right?” Olga asked. “You look, well—flustered.”
“Come on now, don’t be so English. You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” said a woman with a boyish face.
“It’s nothing, really …” I could hardly say I was running away from our host.
“Has someone been bothering you?”
“No, no …”
“I’ll deal with him,” said the boyish one.
“No, no, please.”
“Oh, I bet it’s Boris,” Olga said. “He was ogling her at lunch. He’s incorrigible.”
“You mean the one with the straggly beard? So that’s not Benya?”
The three women burst out laughing. They laughed extravagantly, holding on to one another. “Benya! She thought he was Benya!”
“He’s not on the boat at all,” Olga explained kindly.
“Well, what did I say about Boris?” the boyish one said triumphantly.
“She’d better stay with us,” murmured the third woman. “It’s funny—Westerners can’t usually tell these things.”
• • •
Boris was Benya’s extrasensor, his healer and spiritual adviser, they explained. The boyish woman assured me fiercely that he “wouldn’t bother me again.” He did not. For the next two days she insisted on collecting me from my cabin and chaperoning me back again. I had no idea why I needed this protection. But I was grateful to her. “You were quite right about that fellow,” she confided. “He’s bad news—seriously spooky. We were only just talking about him, before you came in. Can’t think what Benya’s doing keeping him around.”
As I knew from my earlier travels, the transition from communism had brought to the surface all sorts of spiritual quackery. People were always talking about “energy fields,” “biorhythms,” dowsing, and long-distance healing. A hypnotist called Kashpirovsky became a popular idol because of his mass-healing séances on television.
If this were a novel, the fleeting appearance of Benya’s extrasensor would serve as a warning of monsters ahead. But this is not fiction. Life’s little joke is that we are equipped for experiences only when they are over. The warning was one I would understand later on—too late to turn back.
After that I had a good time on the boat. Elsewhere in Russia my friends were living on bread, milk, and potatoes. Here every meal was a feast. Solemnly, we ate our way through cutlets, meat pies, trifles, soups, pastries, pancakes with sour cream and smoked fish, salads drenched in mayonnaise. As Benya’s guests we ate without ceremony, packing our bodies like suitcases before a long journey, preparing for a return to life in the wreckage of Russia’s empire.
The star among my friends was the “Russian Edith Piaf,” whose concert had astounded the Dixieland trumpeter. With her long, dark hair and soulful eyes Elena Kamburova looked like one of those characters who gaze out from early Christian Coptic grave portraits, their eyes trained on eternity. The dying red roses in Olga’s suite were tributes from her concert the night before.
Later on, back in Moscow, I would watch the reticence fall off like a cloak as she walked onstage. She seemed to live fully only in those moments of performance. For the time being, I watched her sing on the screen of a faulty video recording taken the night before. Though the image was distorted, the velvet-dark sound was undamaged. She was indeed the apotheosis of Russia’s great tradition of singer-poets.
As we sat out on deck, Kamburova was sewing a present for Benya. It was a bearded cloth doll with multicolored clothes and pockets for his pens and pencils. “How else can I thank him?” she murmured. “Anything that money can buy he can get himself.” My new friends were devoted to Benya. It was all very puzzling. The cream of Russia’s creative intelligentsia, they were unlikely to accept hospitality from a mafia boss. But how to ask about Benya without making my misgivings rudely obvious? Was he a Party boss who had walked off with the funds? When all business dealings were illegal, the Party controlled the biggest scams. The richest oligarchs to emerge from the confusion of those years would turn out to have come from that background.
Finally, angling for information, I asked Olga about the thugs who were lunching at the captain’s table. She burst out laughing: “Of course! You must’ve thought you’d landed in some mafia stronghold! Well, rest assured—Benya’s not like that.” Not long ago, those two young hoods had attacked him when he was carrying a huge sum of money, she explained. “Being Benya, he invited them to join him! We tried to dissuade him, but he reckoned that since he wouldn’t be able to shake them off, he’d try to convert them—that’s Benya all over. So far, it’s worked. He certainly needs protection. Times are changing, it’s becoming dangerous—at least they keep the others off.”
Benya grew up in a mountain resort in southern Russia. Theater was his great love. The dean of a Leningrad arts college, on holiday in a resort, spotted him in some production and encouraged him to apply for a theater course at his college. All would have been well if Benya had not decided to redecorate his student room in Leningrad. Halfway through the job, he dragged a refuse bin in from the courtyard for the rubbish. The police turned up and started poking around in the bin. They found a dead body, and pinned a murder charge on Benya. When the charge would not stick, they saved face by charging him with “appropriating state property.” Of course, the refuse bin belonged to the state, as did the brushes and paint. In those days everyone lived like that, stealing odds and ends from a state that owned everything.
Benya was given a minimum sentence of three years. The conviction ended his chance of a career in theater, or in any other profession. After his release, he took casual jobs as a maintenance man here, a nightwatchman or caretaker there. But theater remained his passion. Night after night he would be there with carnations for his favorite actor or singer.
When Gorbachev came to power, Benya started trading. He was quick-witted, and, having no stake in the old regime, he could move fast. He started importing Japanese video recorders, which allowed early glimpses of life in the abundant West. Then he moved on to personal computers, each of which could be sold for the lifetime salary of an average professional. He made his first fortune well before the fall of communism. He was a talented deal maker, the legacy perhaps of generations of Odessa Jewish traders. When the first chink of freedom allowed, he opened a little theater. He seems to have had little use for money personally. He kept on the move in his white Mercedes, brokering deals, trading goods wherever they were in short supply. When he had made enough, he started bankrolling films, which was how he met Elena. Later, when I asked her why she had not told me that he called himself Benya she explained that she would not invoke Babel’s mafia lord because “it’s unworthy of him.”
Zhenya-Benya was a grand jester, riding a carnival moment of chaos. He was a wanderer in the service of a higher truth, only his truth was not religious. Dressed in his multicolored clothes, sleeping in his white Mercedes, he belonged to that tradition of social outcasts touched by grace, Russia’s holy fools. He believed that Russia could be redeemed, but only by its artists.
His fantastical career reached its high point that summer of 1992 when he hired the N. Gastello, filled his ark with his favorite artists, and indulged them with every luxury. But by that time the mafias were starting to carve up the territory between them. It was becoming dangerous for a loner.
As the N. Gastello steamed into Saratov I prepared to leave, but Olga told me Benya was expected. He was throwing a feast. Everyone was dressed up. Benya’s girlfriend, in her flowing dress, presided over the table of honor. But the chair beside her remained empty all evening. Over dinner, the thug with tattoos entertained me with filthy underworld anecdotes, which he said were “English.” When he smiled his scar seemed less terrible. “The name’s Yuris—if you’re ever in trouble in Petersburg, call me up …” Beside him sat the extrasensor, my nemesis Boris, looking very ordinary in a badly cut jacket and white socks. Since Olga had taken me under her wing, he had made himself scarce.
After dinner Boris whirled Olga around the deck. Relaxed now, I danced with the jazz pianist who had played on deck that afternoon: “I hate this country,” he confided, flicking his ponytail. “Life’s hell here. But when I got the chance to stay in America I found I was condemned to Russia.”
We leaned on the rail, peering over the river into the darkness. It was so broad that we could not see the east bank. Somewhere out there lay Marx, the town where I was going to chronicle the making of the new Russia. Thanks to its history, I told the pianist, thanks to foreign investment, this place would be transformed long before change came to the rest of rural Russia.
He sighed. “I wish you luck. But remember that foreigners come here and see change because they want to. In fact there’s only one riddle, and that’s insoluble—why is Russia the way it is?”
“I’m fed up with this Russian fatalism,” I replied. “Things are going to change now—and I’m going to watch the preview.”
VISIONS AND FAKES
Next morning the boat was due to head back to St. Petersburg. Late that night in Olga’s candlelit suite my friends tried to dissuade me from leaving. “Don’t be a fool,” said my boyish protector, “no one’ll have time for you—they’ll be too busy grubbing around for the next meal. Stay here. We’ll have fun, and you’ll get to meet Benya.” It was tempting. I had been counting on Benya to introduce me to people in Saratov. All evening we had still been half expecting him. But his chair remained empty.
My protector had put her finger on another problem. The glasnost years, when everyone wanted to know a Westerner, were over. Now it was the fault of the West that people’s magical expectations had failed to come true.
Staying in Saratov was going to be difficult for other reasons, too. When the boat docked, Kamburova’s concert agent in the city had come to pay his respects to the singer. He inquired if I had a visa for Saratov.
“I don’t need one now!” I responded airily. Under the old regime, each city required separate entry visas for foreigners.
“In Saratov you do,” he replied grimly.
“Russia’s full of rules which no one obeys,” I responded. But I noted the triangle of anxiety between his eyes.
“In Saratov, rules are rules.”
“Come off it, Sergei,” remonstrated Kamburova’s pianist.
“You don’t understand—nothing’s changed here! I’ll help you with a visa, but you’ll have to go back and apply from Moscow.”
He told me that Saratov had been a city closed to foreigners until only a few weeks before. Until then, they were allowed only to travel past the city by train in the dead of night.
What to do? From the boat, I could see Saratov stretching uphill from the Volga as far as the eye could see, toward the “yellow mountain” of its Tatar name. It looked dauntingly large. No hotel was going to let me stay without a visa. I could be handed over to the police simply for being here. The only hope was to stay with someone. My one contact was away. “Maybe he’ll be back tomorrow,” a woman’s voice said when I rang. Or maybe not.
Saratov sounded grim, but I was reluctant to return to the Russia I knew with Marx only a bus ride away. I slept fitfully in my luxurious cabin and woke out of a strange dream. After traveling through a desert I arrived in a place which looked like a north German city, with cobbled streets and Gothic churches, except that everything was carved from solid stone. Giant Coca-Cola bottles and finned 1950s Cadillacs were carved into the buildings, but it was unclear what their function was. The city was humming with unfathomable life, but I could only make myself understood by writing in trochees, dactyls, and spondees, the language of scansion.
After breakfast, the captain of the N. Gastello blew the horn. The sun glittered on the deserted waterway as I hugged my friends good-bye and walked down the gangplank. Perhaps my punk contact would turn up. A woman was standing on the promenade. Tiny, with a full skirt and wicker basket, I recognized her from the evening before, when the boat had docked. She had joined us as we enacted the ritual the singer Kamburova had adopted whenever she arrived in a city, feeding the stray dogs. When the price of food doubled and tripled, people started turning their dogs out. Pedigrees and mongrels, they sat on the sidewalks like unemployed men, hoping for their luck to change.
The tiny woman and I waved to the N. Gastello as she sailed north. Then, flashing a dazzling smile which showed her worn teeth, she asked, “Are you Susan? I’m Vera. Elena told me that you needed help. Would you like to stay with me?” I put down my bag and hugged her. As Vera and I started up the hill, through crumbling streets of neoclassical buildings, she talked of Kamburova: “Her songs have been my lifeline. So I’m thrilled at the chance of doing something for you!”
Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Saratov used to be called “the Athens of the Volga.” Then, it was a rich merchant town, trading in timber and hard wheat. In the Second World War, it was spared destruction, thanks to the battle of Stalingrad to the south. Since then time had been wrecking what the tanks spared. Now scaffolding held in place the bulging walls and extravagant wrought-iron balconies above the plastic shop signs.
Vera lived in a small flat off a leafy street near the city center. Outside her front door an enormous black mongrel sat waiting. “Jack’s a stray—he followed me home one day.” Her flat was cluttered with books and paintings. “My son’s away, so you can sleep in his bed. Excuse the mess.” Her son’s walls were hung with Led Zeppelin posters. “I hate housework. If I spent my time looking after the flat, I’d have time for nothing else,” she said as she cleared a path through the dust to the bed with a mop.
We sat drinking tea on her rusting balcony overlooking an inner courtyard full of plane trees. Vera played me Kamburova’s songs on an old gramophone. The rich, dark voice floated over the courtyard, transmuting the drabness and the tragedy of everyday life. “Pessimistic,” the Soviet authorities had dubbed her music. She had operated in that fertile margin beyond Soviet approval, but this side of prohibition. “When I had nothing else, I had Elena’s songs,” Vera murmured.
Vera herself was born into the Soviet elite. She trained as a physicist, and held a prestigious, well-paid job in an armaments factory. “But it wasn’t feeding me,” as she put it. So she gave it up, became a librarian, and retired into her own world, avoiding newspapers and television, protecting herself from Soviet reality behind barricades of music and the poems of Tsvetaeva.
A light breeze rustled the leaves of the plane tree. In the courtyard below a babushka in a flowered housecoat sat asleep in the sun with a brindled cat on her lap. “Isn’t it wonderful?” murmured Vera, her heart-shaped face glowing. “It’s taken me a long time to learn to live in the moment. Now I see how lucky I am.”
I failed to see the luck. Saratov had been closed to foreigners because its industry was largely military. Her husband had been an engineer in an armament factory. He was unemployed, thanks to Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev. One of her sons was a student, and her own salary as a librarian was barely enough to keep the three of them in porridge, potatoes, and windfall apples.
Despite her plight, Vera’s radiant cheerfulness marked her out. Before the fall of communism the population of this closed city was well paid, its shops well stocked, and its housing, schools, and colleges among the best in the empire. Then the arms factories closed. Now people walked with eyes lowered, faces averted from one another. In shops, I was served reluctantly. When I asked the way, people pretended not to hear. To them, I was an outrider for the victorious armies of capitalism. In Vera’s company it was different. Few could resist smiling at this diminutive woman whose radiant, heart-shaped face told one story, while her darned clothes and worn teeth told another. One morning, we passed a blind man groping his way to avoid the open manholes and gaping holes where the asphalt had collapsed into the sewers. Vera slipped her arm through his and we walked him home across the city center.
Marx was tantalizingly close now, but first I needed contacts there. I was in a hurry as my Russian visa was running out. But each time I mentioned that homeland for Russia’s Germans, people clammed up. The project had clearly met with vigorous local opposition. Why? No one would tell me. I even met a radical who talked about how he tried to quell that opposition by applying something he called the algebra of harmony. He was happy to talk about the equation: . But I got no satisfactory answer when I asked him why people were so opposed to a project from which they stood to gain so much.
When I returned to Vera’s flat, perplexed and bruised, she would smile her dizzy smile and pull me into her cocoon. She, too, thought I was mad to be pinning my hopes on Russia’s economic regeneration: “This is only the beginning. The chaos will get worse, far worse. But we have to be cleansed. It will be terrible, but there’s no alternative. Until then, nothing’ll thrive here.”
The apocalyptic tenor of such remarks made me wary of asking about the source of her inner radiance. However, over supper in her cramped kitchen one evening, she answered my unspoken question: “Have you heard of Vissarion?” My heart sank. Vissarion was the leader of a cult. “He came in the nick of time—I was losing hope.” Russia was a fairground of beliefs. The Moscow subway was plastered with bright advertisements for the Bhagavad Gita; smiling American missionaries were plying their trade in the streets like hookers; in the bookshops, the long-forbidden works of Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky were walking off the shelves; the Moonies and Scientology were thriving. Among the homegrown cults, there were six prophets in Moscow that summer who claimed to be the Second Coming. Vissarion was one of them.
Vera’s face glowed as she talked about him: he revealed himself on Red Square on New Year’s Eve, just as the Soviet regime was passing into history. “It was crammed with people celebrating. He was wearing nothing but a red robe and an old fur coat. He preached to the crowd.” She showed me photographs of his paintings. They were crude. There was a video, too: with his saccharine smile and red robe he might have been playing Jesus in a provincial theater production. “Brothers and sisters!” he pronounced, in a singsong voice. “The time has come when you must choose between the paths of Good and Evil.” The end of the world was nigh; only those who followed Vissarion were going to survive …
After that, we skirted around the subject of Vissarion. Vera was not deceived by my polite interest and I distrusted the source of her radiant spirituality. The appeal was obvious. The Orthodox Church could not respond to people’s needs, as it was emerging from what some believed was the worst period of sustained persecution any Christian church had suffered since the late Roman Empire.
Next day, I understood Vera’s desperation better. When I arrived back at the flat bringing a bottle of Napoleon brandy, the color drained from her face. “It’s my husband—he’s …” Her voice dropped: “alcoholic.” She hid the bottle on top of a cupboard. I had hardly met the man. Handsome, with a ravaged face, he left early and arrived home after we had gone to bed.
I might have guessed. Russian men were managing the Soviet collapse much less well than women. In the early 1990s, a million more men would die than if the old regime had continued. With the arms factory closed, Vera’s husband had nothing left to do but drink. No wonder she had grown desperate, living with him in a single room. She had planned to leave him when her sons grew up, but the collapse of the economy had dashed those hopes.
As for the Napoleon brandy, it was fake. The twenty-nine-year-old marketing it would soon emerge as Russia’s richest oligarch. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, favorite child of the old Party, was already running his own bank. Within a few years he would control Russia’s oil. Soon after, he would be behind bars. At least his brandy did not poison or blind, like many of the fakes.
I had still not reached Marx when I ran out of time. Something had obviously gone wrong with the project to rebuild that homeland for Russia’s Germans with foreign money. But what? I was clearly unwelcome in Saratov. I was in the city illegally, and my Russian visa was about to run out. But even as I packed to leave I was determined to come back and find out what lay behind that wall of silence.