OPENING THE CAGES
I reached the Volga town of Marx only that winter. What drew me was a sense that I had to be in Russia at that moment. Russian history had been shaped by long periods of stability interrupted by sudden discontinuities like this. I had a hunch that the character of its people was forged at such times. Ordinary Russians were in a fog of anxiety, and the fog was nowhere thicker than in that Volga region.
How could the local population be opposed to a plan from which they stood to gain so much? Ethnic tension, which had erupted right across Russia’s southern border, had been a crucial factor in the unraveling of the Soviet empire. But these Russian Germans were white and indistinguishable from Russians. Most did not even speak German. On my last day in Saratov I had met a young woman who had a flat in Marx. She had invited me to stay there, “in the unlikely event that you ever come back.” Anna was a local journalist and she had championed the cause of a homeland for Russia’s Germans. We met briefly, in the offices of the city’s only liberal newspaper, where she worked. A tall, gangling young woman, she moved awkwardly, as if her clothes were lined with prickles. Her lively, boyish face was framed by a tonsure of dark hair. She appraised me guardedly from a pair of large brown eyes whose whites were tinged with blue. They sparkled with intelligence. Over meatballs in the paper’s canteen—which poisoned me for a week—she said something intriguing: “I should warn you—do you remember what happened when Gerald Durrell freed the animals in his zoo? He opened their cages and they wouldn’t leave—just sat there and howled. They refused to go back to the jungle and start hunting for food again. Well, that’s us—that’s what we’re like in Marx.” I laughed. But she was not smiling.
My fellow passengers on the battered bus from Saratov sat in silence, bulky in their overcoats, buttressed in with bulging bags. The windows were iced over with crystalline patterns. Melting a hole with my gloved hand, I peered out. There was nothing to see but the snowy steppe stretching away to meet the snowy sky.
I thought about Benya, mysterious host of my cruise. I finally got to meet him in Moscow, over supper at Elena’s. He could not have been less like the flamboyant outlaw of Babel’s Odessa. He looked like an out-of-work clown with his long face, straggling beard, and sad eyes. Rather than multicolored clothes, he wore an old hand-knitted jersey. He was accompanied by a bodyguard, an athletic young Kirghiz whose smart pale blue suit did not conceal the bulge of a gun.
I felt there was something very wrong, but Elena was reassuring: Benya was famous for getting into scrapes and out of them. His luck was down, but he would soon bob up and start splashing money around again, she said. Yet soon after that supper he went missing. In his empty offices, the telephone rang and rang. At first his friends assumed he had gone to ground, as he did whenever he had promised more money to his artist friends than he could deliver. Now he had just surfaced after months of silence. He had turned up in a police station somewhere in Siberia, wearing no coat or trousers. It was minus twenty outside and he was penniless. Exactly what had happened he would not say, but he appeared to have been acting as middleman in a negotiation that went wrong between the Kirghiz and Chechen mafias. The Chechens defaulted, and the Kirghiz held Benya responsible. They kidnapped him and stripped him of everything he owned. The Kirghiz whom he introduced as his bodyguard that evening was in fact his jailor.
The bus was late by the time it rattled to a halt by some rusting factory buildings on the outskirts of Marx. Anna was standing by a telegraph pole, shoulders hunched against the cold. As I stepped down, the sun came out from behind a cloud, throwing Anna’s shadow and that of the telegraph poles onto the snow like exclamation marks. “We must hurry—the light’s going to fail,” she said brusquely, striding off down a street of dilapidated wooden houses.
I followed, hampered by a heavy bag. Anna crashed down on the frozen snow. Then I went flying. Still she kept on hurrying. Finally she stopped in a snowy wasteland. “This is the old German cemetery. In summer it’s littered with bones.” Clearing the snow away, she showed me toppled headstones and tombstones engraved with Gothic inscriptions in German. “They ripped the place apart in ’41. And they’re still doing it today.”
“Is the memory still so strong—after half a century?”
Striding off again, she muttered: “Memory? You’ll find no memory here!”
As I hurried to keep up, slipping and falling, I remembered a sad little story by Daniel Kharms about a carpenter who left home one day to buy glue. He fell over, banged his head, and popped into the chemist for a plaster. On the way home, he fell down again and went back for another plaster. Again and again he fell down, and each time he went back to the shop for another plaster. Finally the chemist suggested he buy the box. “No!” said the carpenter optimistically. “I won’t fall down again!” But by the time he reached home he was so covered in plasters that his family did not recognize him and turned him out on the street …
Kharms was one of the “repressed” writers whose work was finally enjoying cult status in Russia. A comic, a performance artist before the phrase was coined, he used to make his stage appearances out of a cupboard. When he was arrested in 1930 he was charged with “distracting the people from building socialism with … absurdist views.”
It was dark and bitterly cold by the time Anna stopped again. A full moon, yellow as double cream, shone on a white, empty space where a statue of Lenin stood pointing at the remains of a neoclassical Lutheran church. “This is where they held the anti-German demonstrations.” “I don’t really understand why they were demonstrating,” I began, but Anna shot me a dark look and strode off again.
Anna’s Spartan little flat at the top of a high-rise block was barely heated. There was no hot water and the bathroom fittings, sink, and lavatory cistern were laid out on the floor. Still, it was a relief to have arrived. Now we could talk. “So why were people here so against the German homeland?” I began. “Surely they stood to gain so much from it?” She frowned: “Hmm, that’s what you’d think,” she began, then tailed off into silence. She offered me strong tea. She offered me a pancake; but she left my question unanswered.
I asked Anna how she came to be living in Marx, since she worked in Saratov. She threw such a poisonous glance at me that I recoiled. “It’s a long and boring story,” she said with finality. After that she tucked up her legs on a high stool and sat in silence, like a pinioned owl. I was baffled. Last time we met she was a different person—relaxed, amused. Today the tension was coming off her in waves. She seemed afraid, and I felt myself catching that fear, without knowing what there was to be afraid of.
I ventured another question or two. But she answered monosyllabically, and with such daunting finality that I relapsed into silence as well. On the kitchen wall hung a photograph of the moon-faced Yegor Gaidar, architect of the economic reforms. All around him Anna had stuck pictures of happy dogs cut out from colored magazines. The walls at least told me that she supported Yeltsin’s economic reforms.
It was only just after 5:00 p.m. An interminable winter evening stretched before us. Had there been anywhere to go I would have left. Had there been anything to eat, I would have eaten it. Anna’s little pancake had whetted my appetite. “This is how hunger begins”—the first line of a ditty by Daniel Kharms came back to me.
The morning you wake, feeling lively,
Then the weakness begins,
Then the boredom begins;
Then comes the loss
Of the power of quick reason,
Then comes the calmness
And then the horror begins.
I just wanted supper. Kharms died of starvation.
This evening was my initiation into the world of silences. Silence can have many different qualities, as I would find. All I knew about this one was that I could barely control the impulse to get up and leave. Later, I would learn the reasons behind it, though never from Anna herself. She was young, and had not known the harshest years of Soviet censorship, but already her words and opinions had cost her dear. Although we would become friends, she was never going to forget that, as a foreigner and a writer, I was potentially dangerous.
By the time Anna finally laid out a mattress for me on the floor I was charged with her tension. I lay there hurt and baffled. Why had she invited me, if she thought I was some kind of spy? What had been going on that was so terrible she could not talk about it? Now and then a chilling scream penetrated the walls.
“Oh, that’s my neighbors’ idea of fun.”
I was lost in the fog. Nothing had prepared me for the low-level collective hysteria that had Marx, and indeed Russia, in its grip. Factories were folding. Ordinary people, beggared by inflation and rising prices, were unpaid for months on end. Meanwhile, the old Soviet bosses were stripping state assets, appropriating raw materials, salting money away for themselves. Here in Marx those bosses were egging people on to take out their grievances on people like me, cartoon capitalists who were supposedly prowling around, eyeing Russia’s wealth. That would come later. But at the time, the nation’s wealth was worth less than a large Western corporation.
Twice in the course of the night, Anna sat bolt upright. “What’s up?” I whispered. It was as if she were waiting for that dawn knock on the door. But that was absurd—this was not the 1930s.
“Nothing. Go to sleep.”
I had intended to stay in Marx for a few days, but I changed my mind: I was going to catch the bus back to Saratov next morning.
When I woke Anna was lying in bed in her overcoat, hat, and gloves: I had been sleeping with her only extra blanket. If I thought that my change of plan would please her, I was wrong: “You can’t. I’ve fixed up all these appointments for you.” So with bad grace I trailed behind her along the icy streets to my first appointment. “Boris Pilnyak went to school there,” she volunteered. Looking up at the nondescript school block, I went flying across the icy ground. Pilnyak was a popular, stylish writer, a star of the 1920s literary scene. “Was he a Volga German?”
“Of course,” she replied.
The meetings were a waste of time. The mayor looked as if he was having a nervous breakdown. The museum curator tried to sell me his museum’s archives. A schoolteacher with a pudding-bowl haircut and beard that spouted like a jet of water from his chin fired platitudes at me like missiles. Anna maintained her Trappist stance, refusing to divulge anything. Later I learned that the mayor was a frustrated reformer, while the schoolteacher was the local demagogue who had roused crowds against the German homeland by invoking memories of the Nazi invasion.
“What’s wrong with everyone?” I grumbled.
“Now do you understand? No one here’s going to talk to you!”
“But why?” She refused to elaborate, but I detected a glimmer of sympathy.
During one of these pointless meetings Anna ran off to draw her monthly salary. “I must spend it, or it’ll be worthless,” she muttered, patting a shopping bag bulging with notes. “But what on? I used to buy books, but they’ve disappeared now.” During my next meeting, she spent it all on a red and white summer dress. When she held it against herself in the snowy street I caught a glimpse of the dashing young woman Anna might have been had she not lived in that place, at that time.
As we trudged down the street someone hit me on the head from behind. The weapon was only a long sausage, but I had had enough. Bruised, hungry, and perplexed, I let out a volley of hopelessly outdated Russian curses. Two young men scuttled away, looking aghast. For a moment Anna stood petrified. Then she laughed. She laughed so much that she almost fell over again. “They thought you were German!” she gasped. I did not see the joke.
That night, Anna returned to Saratov and I stayed on. Some friends of hers had offered me a bed. She walked me to their ramshackle wooden house, then strode off to catch the bus. Snowbound clouds hung over the town. The icy street was empty and the town was wrapped in silence. Between the houses, high fences sealed off the yards from the street. Presently, the door opened to reveal a small, curly-haired woman. “Come in, you must be freezing. Where’s Anna? Ah, yes, she and my husband aren’t speaking at the moment.” She laughed and rolled her eyes.
Natasha spoke in English, fluently. At that juncture, it was extraordinary to meet anyone in the provinces who spoke a foreign language well. As I peeled off my outer garments I complimented her. “Thanks, but here it just marks you out as a suspicious character.”
In her bare kitchen a three-legged marmalade cat was licking itself on an upturned log of wood. “You must be hungry if you’ve been staying with Anna,” she went on. Natasha had a lively, snub-nosed face and high Slavic cheekbones, though she was deathly pale. As I ate, she told me how she and her husband had ended up in Marx. “We were living in the Caucasus. When Gorbachev announced the plan for a German homeland, we thought it was all going to happen here.” She sighed and lit a fresh cigarette from the stub of the last. “We were just married. In love. Full of dreams. I saw this ad in the paper. Delightful private house on the banks of the Volga. I bought it sight unseen. “It doesn’t matter if it isn’t exactly what we want,” we said to ourselves. “Once the Germans get things going we’ll be able to do anything—restore it, build another.”
“Everyone warned us. My father pleaded with me. My cousin Borya, who’s a KGB general, traveled across Russia to get me to change my mind: “Don’t be a fool, it’s not going to happen!” he said. He must’ve known something we didn’t. But we wouldn’t listen. You see, it was the new beginning we’d been longing for.”
Natasha sighed and poured us tea. “To think—I gave up my little house in the Caucasus for this barrack! It had this garden full of flowers. When we arrived I asked the driver why he’d stopped. “This is it,” he said. “You’re joking!” I said.
“Now we can’t get out. Who’d buy a house in Marx now? We can’t even get work. Igor’s a brilliant engineer, and he knows all about computers, but he’s been out of work for months. I’m a journalist, I’ve got a degree in mathematics and I speak English, but I can’t even get a job teaching!”
“How do you manage?”
“I’ve got a few private pupils. Mostly, we just sell things. We had all these pictures, crystal, furniture …” Now the room was bare, except for beds, a table, some chairs, and books.
While Natasha was talking, a man appeared in the doorway and stood looking at me disapprovingly. He was strikingly handsome, with olive skin and a trim mustache that curved down each side of his mouth as far as his chin. His black eyes, underscored with dark rings, were sad. “Ah, Igor.”
“So why can’t you get a job?” I asked him.
“Because I don’t belong,” he replied. “It’s a town of serfs! There are no educated people here—we’ve only got each other.” He fixed Natasha with his soulful eyes.
“I used to be sorry for them,” he went on. “Then I realized you can’t do that—you’ve got to judge them. I’ll give you an example,” he said, walking to the sink and turning the tap. “Take this tap—quite simple, you might think. It turns on. It turns off. Well, our neighbors don’t have running water.” I murmured something sympathetic. “What was that? Did I hear you say ‘poor things’?” Igor rolled his eyes. “They could have had it long ago—free of charge. But guess what?” He was in a lather now. “No, you couldn’t guess, you come from the West. Those ‘poor things’ of yours would rather live like that. Yes! The idea of change, any kind of change, terrifies them. They revel in their backwardness—in the Caucasus, where I come from, a man will at least pretend to be brave. In Siberia—Natasha’s from Siberia—they’ve got a different kind of courage. But not in Marx! I tell you—you’ve come to the real Russia here!”
Natasha was watching with amusement. Igor continued: “I can’t tell you how lonely it is. And ugly! You’ll damage your eyes! Listen—when they needed bricklayers to build the new Catholic church they had to go to Saratov—no one here could remember how to lay bricks straight!”
On it rolled, Igor’s litany of contempt and self-pity, acted out with extravagantly theatrical gestures. He pulled out a bottle. “In the Caucasus we wouldn’t call this drink. But you can’t be too careful nowadays. It’s the only stuff you can trust. The rest’s all doctored.” The bottle, 96 percent proof, came, improbably, from France. The couple proceeded to teach me how to drink raw alcohol, using fruit juice as a chaser.
A few glasses later, Igor pulled his log closer to the table and looked me in the face. “Come on, you can tell us,” he said, cajoling. “Why have you come?” I explained, not for the first time.
“Don’t give me that malarkey.” He was hectoring now. “Who sent you?”
“What do you mean? No one!”
“Who did you say you were working for?”
“I don’t work for anyone.”
Natasha sat back, relishing the spectacle of her husband baiting me. He pressed on.
“Who paid you to come?”
“It’s not quite like that. You see I’m a—”
“Come off it,” he interrupted, sarcasm boiling over. “There you are—sitting in your nice London house with your charming children and your loving husband. And you expect us to believe that one fine day you decide to come and see how people live in the town of Marx! I don’t believe you.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“Ah, I get it!” Igor interrupted. “You’re here for a bit of rough! You’ll go home and dine out on horror stories of your brave trip to the heart of barbaric Russia.”
“I came because I want to understand.”
“Understand? The woman wants to understand!” Igor bellowed, rolling his dusky eyes. “When has the West ever wanted to understand Russia?”
“I can’t answer for the West.”
“You don’t seem able to answer for yourself either.”
“And you don’t seem able to listen.”
It was almost dawn and I was fed up with being bullied. I lost my temper. “Look, I may be a fool for trying to write a book about Russia right now. I’m clearly a fool to have come here. But what about you? I can leave—you’re stuck. Anyway, who’d send a spy to a dump like this?” There was a long silence. Then Igor fell about laughing and Natasha threw her arms around my neck and started kissing me: “Honey, honey, look to me—I am waiting for you so long,” she slurred, her impeccable English smashed by drink. “You’re a wunafull, wunafull …” Horrified, I disentangled myself and locked myself in the front room, where Natasha had set up a camp bed.
I lay awake, stung by Igor’s accusation that I was either a spy or a sensation tourist. How different it was when I set out on my travels in the last years of Soviet power, researching Epics of Everyday Life. Then, I wanted to find out how ordinary people were handling the revelation that they had been lied to all their lives. Often, I was the first Westerner they had met. It was people’s resilience that struck me then. Where was that resilience now?
I woke early next morning to the sound of a howling cat. I had slept badly, mocked by my naivete at thinking that any island of prosperity could rise up here, out of this drowned land. During the night I remembered something else, too. A Moscow journalist friend had come to Marx ten years ago to research an article about irrigation. He had not been welcome either. “In the evening I was eating in a restaurant when something hit me on the head,” he told me. “I took no notice. Wham! It happened again. I looked around. No one there. Wham! And again. Three men at the far table were throwing their bones at me.
‘Is that what you usually do with your bones?’ I asked them.
‘Who are you?’
‘What business is that of yours?’
‘Who are you?’ ”
Jostling, threatening, they followed him out of the restaurant. He used the only weapon he had—the names of the local Party bosses he was going to see. “Hey, brother, why didn’t you say so before? We’ll see you back to the hotel, make sure you’re all right.” Watch it, my friend concluded: they don’t like strangers in the town of Marx. I had laughed at my friend’s story, thinking how different it would be now. Yes, it was: it was worse.
The howling cat was sounding desperate. I unlocked the door to find her scrawny and heavily pregnant, clearly about to give birth. After failing to rouse Natasha and Igor, I wrapped myself in a blanket and watched over her as she went into labor. On the wall hung a photograph of Natasha wearing a striped jacket and a cap made of newspaper on which was written the word MARXLAG. A strand of barbed wire ran across the picture.
By the time Natasha and Igor woke up the feline drama was over. The cat’s convulsions had produced blood and afterbirth, but no kittens. Like the Volga German homeland, it was a false pregnancy.
THE RED CARDINAL
Anna did warn me that no one in Marx would ever talk to me about the political tornado which had hit the town. She was right. But back in Moscow I started researching. The story I pieced together captured in miniature the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth century.
When Soviet communism set out to liberate man from the tyranny of nature, the countryside around Marx was accorded a highly significant role. The land, which was fertile, though inclined to drought, was earmarked to become the market garden for the whole empire. Once the Volga was dammed and the land irrigated, the town’s hinterland would become a “zone of guaranteed harvest.” When agronomists objected that the soil was not suitable for irrigation they were labeled bourgeois saboteurs and dispatched to the camps.
The task of “novelizing” the First Five-Year Plan for the region was given to Boris Pilnyak, who went to that lycée in Marx. Pilnyak was deeply opposed to the harnessing of literature to political ends. In 1929 he had himself been denounced as a bourgeois saboteur in a hysterical press campaign. This project was his chance to redeem himself. Stalin also had a score to settle with Pilnyak, as the writer had published a story in 1926 that more or less openly accused him of having engineered the death of one of his rivals, Mikhail Frunze. The Great Joker assigned him Nikolai Yezhov, head of the secret police, as his literary mentor. The Volga Flows into the Caspian Sea, published two years later, tells the story of the heroic workers who foil a scheme by capitalist saboteurs to blow up the dam they are building. But this creaking tract won Pilnyak only a few more years. He was arrested in 1937, accused with gallows humor of wanting to kill his literary adviser, Yezhov.
The plan to create that “zone of guaranteed harvest” also ran into trouble. The new dams prevented the river’s low east bank from flooding the steppe in spring, moistening the soil for the growing season. So by the late 1950s, the region was suffering from drought. Cattle were dying, and at one point the population even had to be evacuated.
Manpower and resources were drafted in to solve the problem. Teams worked night and day, in nonstop shifts, to build the Saratov canal. For a while it looked as if these efforts had worked. Grain harvests rose by three or four times on the irrigated land, and the result was held up as a model for Soviet agriculture. Yet they were in such a hurry that they did not line the canals and ditches with cement. So they leaked. The water table started rising, bringing salt to the surface and souring the earth, just as the agronomist had warned.
The Party bosses ignored the problem. The more they irrigated, the more subsidy they could wring out of the state. Gradually, to keep the subsidies rolling in, the whole project moved from fact into fiction: directors of state farms were pressured to sign papers stating that work was complete which had barely begun. Those who agreed were promoted, those who refused found their careers blocked. Of all the Soviet money-making scams, irrigation was the most lucrative, since subsidies were paid not on the basis of harvest yields but on the amount of water poured onto the fields.
Yes, really, the more water they poured on the fields, the more subsidy they were paid. By the end of Soviet power, this approach left almost half the region’s finest farming land salinated and unfit for agriculture. No wonder those in power did not want a German homeland. New money from Germany would have meant new people, asking awkward questions.
The man who ran this operation for twenty years was Ivan Petrovich Kuznetsov. Marx was his power base. He commanded a workforce of some 30,000, and won a medal as a Hero of the Soviet Union. A boss in the old Stalinist mode, he worked from early morning until late into the night, employing staff in two shifts—two secretaries, two chauffeurs, and the rest. Day and night people waited outside his office: the bosses of housing trusts, factories, state farms; Party secretaries, and colonels whose battalions were assigned to construction. It was Kuznetsov who decided which roads and housing blocks would be built, and who was assigned housing.
They called him the Red Cardinal, King of the Shadow Economy, and his connections reached right up to the Politburo. Detailed information about him was hard to find: even at the height of glasnost those who knew kept their mouths shut. But gossip suggested the scale on which he worked: in 1988 the Gorky car factory received an order from Saratov for 150 cars to renew the town’s pool of taxis. Only seventy arrived. A similar fate befell a planeload of humanitarian aid from Germany.
When President Yeltsin visited Saratov after the fall of communism, he announced publicly that it was time to depose Kuznetsov. The irrigation boss responded in venerable Soviet tradition, by retiring to hospital with a “heart condition,” and demoting himself to deputy head of irrigation.
The Red Cardinal was no longer the boss. But was his power broken?
Back in London, a battered envelope dropped through my door one spring morning. It was from Anna and it had taken two months to arrive. It was remarkable that it had done so at all. Salaries of Russian postal workers were well below subsistence level; letters in and out of the country were being routinely dumped, or opened in the hope of finding money.
It arrived just after President Yeltsin had surprised everyone by winning support for his reform program in a referendum. He staged it in order to leapfrog parliamentary opposition to his reforms. Some 58 percent of the voters backed Yeltsin personally, while 53 percent backed his economic program.
A sheaf of poems fell out of the envelope: “I don’t know what waits for us tomorrow,” she wrote in eloquent, fractured English. “It might be dictatorship, a coup, chaos or civil war. I have not lost my hope, of course, but impartial analysis of our Russian atmosphere shows we must be ready for all. So I want to ask you a favor. If something will happen with me, all my poems will perish with me together. I would not want that to happen. My poems are my trace, my sign on this Earth.
“I often recollect words of my friend, a psychologist. When she saw the photo of you and me she said that we have something in common in our eyes. And you remember, we were born on the same day.
“I think that you are …” She broke into Russia: “a-little-bit-me. A-little-bit-me lives far away, in safety in England, in a fairy-tale world of elves and gnomes. And that makes me feel good, at peace.”
After reading this enchanting letter I sat there, stunned. Was this the same person who had frozen me out throughout that interminable evening? I was ashamed of myself. Anna must have been in deep trouble. How easily I had dismissed the possibility, misread the situation, behaved like a cartoon Westerner, unable to imagine that in provincial Russia today people could still be listening for that knock on the door.
From other people in Marx, I had learned more about Anna after we parted. When things got ugly for the town’s small Russian German minority, she was one of the few Russians who publicly rushed to their defense. As a result, she lost her job on the local paper, and was turned out of her flat. The townspeople turned against her, too: Marx was full of stupid rumors to the effect that she had a Russian German lover, that she gave birth to an illegitimate child.
I had to know if she was all right. There was no way I could ring her, as she had no phone. I tried reaching Natasha and Igor. After the usual delays, the Russian operator said in that familiar, Soviet categorical tone: “There’s no such place as Marx.” How good it would be to be able to write the place off as a chimera, a nasty, neurasthenic state of mind, but it was real.
“I’ve been there!”
“There is no such town as Marx,” repeated the robotic voice. “But I can put you through to Engels instead.”
So there it was, the partnership between Marx and Engels, still indissoluble, reincarnated in bricks and mortar. Later, I learned why Marx was not on the phone. The town’s telephone system was still being switched manually. The operators had been offered automation, but fearing for their jobs, they refused.
I scanned Anna’s poems for clues as to the source of her trouble. I found none. But I recognized the voice of a real poet. One of them (translated here by me) perfectly captured the desolation I felt when I arrived in that provincial town:
It was a battered bus that brought me
to the country, as if to prepare me for what I would find.
It smelled thickly of burned out stars
and the dampness of the starry waste.
Lumps of dark redbrick
lay around like meteorites.
The red-eyed cur, abandoned since spring
(its owner was Rita-the-Slain),
Loomed everywhere, as if it had
innumerable bodies which, though wasted,
were still sinister. It was no astronaut, but man
that dared to live among the groves
of clay-defying elms, which grow by the shaggy river
and reach toward the hills.
Brave is the man who lives
so ill-defended from himself at such a time!
Resolute he strides into the nothingness
carrying his irreparable hump, the earth,
having pronounced an irrevocable “yes”
to the crimson-gray, unpeoplable Universe.
THE OTHER SIDE OF DESPAIR
“I think that you are a-little-bit-me.” With these words Anna reeled me back to Marx like a fish on a line. As I traveled down there on the train, I imagined what the town was going to look like in summer. It might have charms I could not have guessed at.
But no, Marx turned out to be even uglier without its cosmetic blanket of snow. The rows of decrepit residential blocks, the concrete high-rises and rusting sheds lacked any pastoral appeal. There were no redeeming features in the abandoned building sites, broken benches, and rutted, puddled streets where the infrequent traffic showered muddy water over passersby, but where, if you turned on a tap, there was no clean water to be had for whole days on end.
Anna’s boyish face was brown and her tonsured hair gleamed. But when I moved to embrace her she shied away. When she heard how anxious her letter had made me she looked horrified. “Forget it—it was just a little winter gloom.”
There was more to it than that, though. Because of her brave stand on the Volga German issue, Natasha explained, Anna was invited to Moscow in the spring for a trial period working on Izvestia, Russia’s oldest liberal newspaper. It was the first move toward offering her a job. When no offer was forthcoming, she fell into a depression: her chance of escaping the provinces was over. “You can’t blame them,” Natasha commented. “She’s a good journalist, but she can’t play the game—they’ll have written her off as hopelessly provincial.”
When I went to stay with Anna the first things that caught my eye in her cramped hallway were two photographs on her wall. One was of me, looking almost as wary as Anna. The other was of Elena Kamburova, the singer who had befriended me on Benya’s cruise. Since my last visit, she had given a concert in Saratov, and Anna and Igor (who had taken the picture for the paper) had both fallen under her spell. During a further evening of interminable silences, I clung to these gossamer connections.
The following morning we went for a walk along the backwaters of the Volga. Anna strode ahead, pursued by demons. Only once we had settled on a spit of wooded land surrounded by inlets did she start to relax. “Did you know that the man who introduced us is the KGB officer on our paper?” she said with a hint of a smile: “When I saw him again he asked whether I thought you were an agent.” Whatever suspicions she might once have had were over now, I realized.
There was a sudden flash of yellow-green wings overhead. “That’s an oriole—there’s a nest up there.” Anna knew her birds; she had read biology at university. The trunks of the willow trees were standing in water and the air was filled with the fluff of seeding poplar trees. Two pink-gray ring doves were flying to and fro across the water, as if harnessed together, cooing their murmuring song. A water rat swam across the inlet, breaking the surface with its nose.
“I’m sorry I was so unfriendly when you were here last,” she said after a long silence. “I used to be so pro-Western. Then I started meeting people from the West.” She pulled a face. “Mostly journalists from Germany. They treated us as if we were animals in a zoo, rare specimens of malformation! You’re different. At least you’re interested in us as people.” Then, after a long pause, “You know what it’s like to live on the other side of despair.”
Her words caught me off guard. She was right, of course. But how did she know? After all, she had succeeded in choking off every substantive attempt I had made at conversation. Despair had indeed brought me here to Marx. When Gorbachev opened the Soviet empire in the late 1980s I had become as enthralled as she had by the dream of Russia’s Westernizers, who wanted to see Russia become a European state, with the institutions of liberal democracy—civil society, free speech, democracy, and the rule of law. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, insisted that the Western path of development was not right for Russia; the country’s backwardness protected qualities in her which allowed her a different and spiritually superior way forward. I had been fascinated, as I imagined she had been, by the idea of this piece of countryside having an ongoing, supportive connection with Europe, through the Russian Germans. We both dreamed, as Catherine the Great had once done, that this rural region would become a haven of prosperity and civilized values.
After this promising flash of intimacy, our friendship developed with painful slowness. I sensed that she was holding herself together with difficulty. She responded badly to questioning and rarely volunteered information about herself. She was like a wild bird, poised to fly off if I got too close. So when we spent time together I took to sitting very still, hoping she might just come to trust me. Often, her large dark eyes were wary, defiant. Only now and then, when she let her guard slip, would her face light up with amusement or curiosity.
It was Natasha who told me why Anna would not talk to me in the winter. An article she wrote had had a devastating effect in the town of Marx, and she was not going to risk that happening again. A bizarre story, it made it amply clear why that Russian German homeland could never have got off the ground in any circumstances.
In October 1991, shortly after the Communist Party’s attempted coup, a government spokesman announced that the Russian German homeland would be established by the end of the year. By that time, local opposition had died down. It was even dawning on people that the development might improve their lives.
Their elected representatives disagreed. They announced a state of emergency in the region and called a grand meeting in Marx. In speech after hysterical speech, the deputies declared that unless the decision were reversed they would close all borders and roads to the province and destroy the bridges over the Volga. The town’s prosecutor, backed by the police chief and the head of the local KGB, warned them that such actions would contravene the criminal statute book. But they were shouted down with cries of “Monster!” “Eunuch!” “Coward!”
Anna covered the event for a Saratov paper. Her article merely reported the facts, but that was enough: unlike Marx’s paper, The Banner (formerly “of Communism”), it said nothing about the “thousands of demonstrators” because there were none. Indeed, the episode would soon have been forgotten had a Moscow journalist who was visiting his mother-in-law not read Anna’s article. Vastly amused, he rewrote the story under his own byline.
It appeared on the front page of one of the most sensational national newspapers, Moskovsky Komsomolets: “From now on the deputies of Marx’s town council are as free as birds,” the article began. “No one’s going to take any notice of them. The regional prosecutor, the chief of the KGB, the head of the police and the judges have all declared in black and white: ‘We disassociate ourselves from the actions and proceedings of the present council. We’ve got enough trouble with hooligans already …’ ”
The people of Marx opened their favorite paper to find that the whole country was laughing at their elected representatives. Instead of joining in, they closed ranks: for all their faults, the deputies were theirs. Solidarity in times of crisis was an ancient reflex. It was born of Russia’s geography and climate, the experience of scratching a living out of this tricky soil, watered by patchy rainfall in a land situated too far north for easy living. The survival of the group was a safer option than individual initiative in these obdurate circumstances.
Marx’s chiefs of the KGB and police were forced to resign and the judges to apologize. Only the town prosecutor refused to back down and survived in office. He retreated behind his desk, armed with heart pills and the complete works of Chekhov, and took to lobbing missiles at fools who wasted his time.
That buried the last hope of a homeland for Russia’s Germans. It was not Anna’s fault; but, nevertheless, her words were instrumental.
I was reminded of a story by Nikolai Leskov, supreme chronicler of provincial life in nineteenth-century Russia. The peasants on a well-managed estate had gone on the rampage, smashing machinery and burning buildings down; so the baffled owner hired someone to find out why. The estate’s English manager could cast no light on what had triggered the revolt. All he had done was build new factories and introduce modern farming techniques, he said. And of course he had never beaten them.
The investigator also met a wall of silence when he talked to the peasants. No, the Englishman had not beaten them or worked them too hard, they agreed. There was nothing wrong with the new factories either. But in the end, one peasant cracked. He said the Englishman had meted out this terrible punishment to a lazy peasant: rather than beating him, he sat him on a fancy armchair, tied him there by a thread—“Just like a sparrow!”—and forced him to watch his fellow peasants work. That was what set the peasants off.
Russians will endure almost any hardship, these two stories reminded me. What they cannot endure is the suspicion that they are being laughed at, humiliated. No wonder I had run into a wall of silence when I first arrived here. My questions had picked the scab off a very fresh wound.
TIED BACK TO BACK
Natasha and Igor greeted me like an old friend, and insisted that I stay with them. It was a relief to have my own room in their house on Engels Street, since the air of Marx was still thick with mistrust. Walking through it was like heading into a strong wind.
The couple were in a state of shock. When they arrived in the town the only local newspaper was the ponderous Banner of Communism—which was to sack Anna for supporting the Germans, and kicked her out of her flat. The couple had persuaded the town’s tractor factory to let them start a paper of their own. They called it The Messenger and they wrote and produced it entirely themselves. They wanted to liberate the townspeople with their words, to bring them that sense of freedom and opportunity which fired Russia’s urban population during the glasnost period. And it did become a popular little publication. Every issue sold out. But for reasons they could not explain, the factory had just sacked them and appointed another editor.
The success of an enterprise binds people together, while failure divides them. Since my last visit, Natasha had been corresponding with an old admirer, who had moved to Canada and become a successful businessman. Recently, he had asked if she would join him there. “I’m not in love with the man, of course, but he’s nice enough, and he’s had a soft spot for me for years.”
“Does Igor know?”
“No—for goodness’ sake don’t breathe a word! It may all come to nothing. But whatever happens, when that letter arrived, I came back to life.” She had indeed. In the winter she was deathly pale and remote, like a faded photograph. Now her snub-nosed, high-cheekboned face radiated energy, and the eyes under that mane of brown curls sparkled.
The house, which belonged to her, was on the market. “That means nothing though—everyone in Marx is trying to get out. But who’d buy a house here now?” She had told Igor she wanted a divorce. “We had this terrible fight. He attacked me with a kitchen knife. It was scary—but funny, too. Yes, really! After that I realized I’d got to get out fast. I just want to start my life all over again!” When the house was sold, she would return to Siberia. Her father would help her get started: “I won’t need much. I’ve done with possessions. Antiques, pictures, china—I’ve had it all. Even the junk we’ve now got weighs me down. I just want to be free! The years I’ve spent in Marx have taken their toll on me, I know that. But I was given a lot. I’ve still got enough of what it takes to begin again. I can’t wait to travel and see the world!”
In the meantime, Natasha was spending most of her time out of the house. She left in the morning and did not return until supper time, though she had no work but the odd English lesson. Where she went she did not say. “Igor’s become impossible. I can’t bear to be with him. He won’t take a job, and he’s quarreled with all our friends.” But in the evening, the three of us would sit long over supper, my company seeming to act as some sort of buffer between them.
As for Igor, he paced up and down the house like a caged animal, rolling his dark eyes, releasing his frustration in scathing diatribes against the backward dolts of Marx. With his dark southern features and distinctive mustache trimmed around his mouth he might indeed have been a zoo animal, so exotic did he look in that small town. Natasha accused him of being lazy and spoiled, and the accusation stung. Yes, he did turn down a job editing a newsletter for the mayor: “But not because I’m lazy—I just won’t work for fools! I’d be only too happy to work, if there were anything decent on offer. What I won’t do is to put up with the old Soviet way of working—and I don’t see a new one emerging. Look around you. You’ll see nothing but people who’ve been broken by the system—I was, too. When I came out of the army I worked at this place where they were developing something like the photocopier. After a while, I started coughing blood. I asked for ventilation. They did nothing. I asked nicely. I explained, I pleaded. Useless. In the end I just stopped working. They finally sacked me for negligence!” He sighed: “In the life of everyone in this country you’ll find some such story.”
In fact, Igor was not lazy, just in despair. He really did love nothing better than work. His ex-wife, who had set up a dressmaking business in Moscow, had commissioned him (in exchange for a ton of sweets, a currency more reliable than rubles) to devise a machine for making shoulder pads. He was putting the finishing touches to his invention. Whenever he came back from working on it he would be in a sweet mood.
Leafing through back issues of The Messenger, I understood why Natasha and Igor lost the editorship. To start with it was lively and intelligent, a breath of fresh air after the thudding provincialism of The Banner (of Communism). But gradually, Natasha and Igor’s despair at the town’s Luddite opposition to change spilled onto the pages.
The articles were unsigned, but there was no mistaking their voices. Igor was the thunderer: “Don’t be fools! If you haven’t got the strength to meet the challenge of this new age yourself, don’t make it worse for others than it already is. Don’t betray those who saved Russia from the communist nightmare! Have a little patience, help each other with a word, a crust, a smile. And particularly the children—they will never forgive your treachery, your greed, your ignorance …”
Natasha’s style was more literary: “ ‘When will he come, Russia’s liberator?’ we complain. We can’t make up our minds to take that step ourselves. Hello, it’s me! I’m a free person in a free Russia! I’m not a worker, I’m an individual, and I hate lies and slavery!” she wrote on the occasion of Russia’s newly established Day of Independence. “I believe that sometime this day really will become a national holiday. But before that can happen, each one of us must ‘squeeze the slave out of ourselves, drop by drop’ as Chekhov advised us.”
• • •
As I sat there, reading their articles, I heard music. A funeral was passing in the street below. A saxophonist and two trumpeters led the way, playing wildly out of tune. Four men carried the bandaged body in an open coffin. A crowd followed, then a procession of cars and buses. The man looked quite young. He had lived a few doors down, said Igor. He fell ill after spraying his carrots. “It’ll pass. Just drink lots of milk!” the doctor said. Next day he was dead.
Death was lurking in any can or bottle on sale now. Half the products were fakes, but which half? Mostly, the labels were convincing enough. The day before, I went out to buy a feast for Natasha and Igor: a fresh fish, a good Spanish wine, cheese, and a bottle of French mayonnaise. The “wine” turned out to be raw alcohol, apple juice, water with a touch of something petrochemical. The “mayonnaise” was furniture polish with added vinegar.
“Obmanul cheloveke” (“I had one over on him”), the very phrase expressed satisfaction at having deceived someone. People who lost their jobs were making money by mixing these poisonous potions for their neighbors. Gone were the controls of a developed society. If you bought rotten goods, there was no redress. Nor, for the carrot sprayer’s widow, would there be compensation. Here, it was “fate.” It was not Germans, or even Kuznetsov, people feared now. It was each other.
Igor and Natasha’s rows would flare up out of nowhere. One day, Natasha and I were picking strawberries in a patch of ground behind their house. The plants were a relic of the couple’s early days in Marx, when they thought the town was going to be their permanent home. “But it’s no good—this place, it gets to you,” Natasha commented, surveying the muddle of weeds and long grass.
Natasha and I were talking about a friend of theirs called Misha when Igor joined us. He was an ex-engineer turned trader whom I had just met. He would not survive as a businessman, Natasha was saying; he was too innocent. “It’s good to meet someone who’s so confident in the future,” I was saying. “He’s so open.”
“Misha’s not open,” Igor interrupted. “I’m the one who’s open. If people don’t like it they’re just stupid.” Misha had tried bringing Igor into his business, but Igor had quarreled with everyone.
“They’re not stupid,” retorted Natasha. “You just can’t get on with them.”
“I can’t lie, even if everyone else does. You excuse everyone else’s lies, but not my Truth.” They were off.
“People lie for lots of reasons: not to cause pain; because they don’t want to disappoint someone.”
“Look, I’m no fool. If a girl says some bloke likes her I’m not going to contradict her. But lies are different. You’ve got to understand,” he went on, turning to me, “how lies permeated every corner of our working lives. It became so much part of us that we have no idea how to live without lying at every step. That’s why I won’t work with these fools! I’ll give you an example: Ivan’s got thirty hectares of land and the state says he can produce x on it. In order to produce that he’ll have to work not just the thirty, but another fifteen he’s kept hidden from the state. If that’s how he’s worked all his life, how d’you expect him to start living without lies? The clever man, who’s praised and rewarded—oh you’re so wonderful, here’s a medal—is the one who’d got his hands on those extra hectares. Then I come along with what I’ve produced on my thirty hectares, and I’m sacked for living like an honest man! So here we are, heads fogged with lies and people don’t like it when I tell the truth!”
“See what I mean?” Natasha said to me, before turning to Igor: “Have you finished?”
“What do you expect me to do, smile and say ‘You’re right’? Every day the wall between me and the rest of the world gets thicker. I can smile and lie and say they’re right when they’re not, and the wall gets a teeny bit thinner. I can lick arse and it’ll get even thinner. Or I can break my bones and it’ll disappear entirely. What should I do? You tell me!”
“You’re insufferable,” Natasha sobbed, running into the house. Igor stood shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, “What’s with the woman now?”
Later, he told me a story he came across when editing The Messenger. During one of the waves of mass arrests in the 1930s, a young Volga German couple from Marx who were very much in love were locked for a month in a basement on some phantom charge. They were tied together, back to back. “And guess what became of their great love? When they were freed they ran off in opposite directions and never clapped eyes on one another again.” He paused. “That’s what Marx is doing to Natasha and me.”
TURNING RUSSIA AROUND
It was early evening in Marx. The breeze off the fields smelled sweet and the sky over the steppes was vast. Under the poplars of Lenin Alley groups of young men in nylon track suits, trousers hitched tight to display their manhood, were flirting with the miniskirted, bubblegum-popping girls. It was a welcome sight: their youth carried its own sort of promise.
Natasha and I were invited to supper with Misha and his wife, Tatiana. We walked past broken benches, hacked-down trees, abandoned building sites, and row on row of jerry-built, battered residential blocks. The crippled, gifted art teacher I had just met walked this way to work every day: “I read all the way there and back without lifting my eyes from the book,” he confided. “It’s the only way I can survive the ugliness.” Marx was affecting me like that, too.
In one of the battered blocks, we found Tatiana scrubbing crayfish in a red and white polka-dot kitchen. There were crayfish everywhere: in a bucket on the floor, crawling along the sideboard; boiling on the stove, steaming in a pink pile on the table. Tatiana was young, with large gray eyes, full lips, and wavy, ash-blonde hair. “I hope you like crayfish,” she said shyly, standing on one leg, wrapped in an apron, unconscious of her beauty. “There’s nothing much else to eat. Some boys were selling them by the roadside and Misha bought a sackful.”
She and Misha had come to Marx to serve out their obligatory provincial stint after graduating as engineers from Moscow’s elite Baumann Institute. Marx’s secret electronics factory used to employ five hundred engineers to work on the electronics for Saratov’s arms factories. It was deemed a prestigious placement. So hush-hush was its operation that even its workers did not know the factory’s real name. They turned out toy cars, too, to give the factory an alibi. Now the bright young engineers like Misha and Tatiana had left, and toys were all the factory was making. Those who remained earned a token amount, when they were paid at all. Tatiana was happy that Misha was earning enough for her to be able to stay at home and look after their daughter, Polina.
Presently, Misha walked in, pink and dripping, straight off the soccer field. Star of the factory’s team, he was putting on weight now. He was fair, like his wife, with blue eyes and a gentle face which lit up when he smiled. Natasha had described him to me as “the only honest businessman in Marx.” When I told him he laughed. “Honest? Not me! Well, it depends what you mean. I don’t stick to the law—no one could. But in the sense of being decent, I try.”
What Natasha meant by saying that Misha and his partners were honest was that they had not set up their business by stealing from the state. Those who could did so by paying some factory manager to “borrow” his employees’ wages for a month or two. The workers went unpaid, but another business was born. Misha kick-started his business by driving to southern Russia, where Tatiana’s mother worked in a sugar factory, filling the car with sugar, and selling it in Saratov. Now they traded in soft drinks and chewing gum. Though the family lived modestly enough, unlike most people they could eat fresh food every day, and treat their friends.
Misha was shy with me. But as the liqueur bottle grew emptier, he relaxed: “I know you think we’re just traders in cheap goods, but you wait! I’m going to knock out my rivals. I’m going to be a power in this province. We may have started by lying and stealing from the government—there was no other way. But we’ll soon be beyond that. Even now things are sorting themselves out. And there’ll be no stopping the people who come through these years. We’re going to be fabulously rich.”
Misha’s words were addressed to me, but his eyes stayed on his graceful wife as she moved around the kitchen. “Only then will we get around to tackling the chaos you see all around you. Mark my words, the West’ll have to watch out! Who’d be a businessman in the West? They’re going mad with boredom—you’ve got a system. Where’s the fun? Here you build your own world every day. It’s a game of skill, and there are no rules, just ways of getting through. We may have lived under a regime where the more water you poured onto your fields, the more subsidy you received, but that’s over. Now we count every kopeck. For me every other trader in town’s a competitor—I’ll do the lot in! It’s tough, but fun! We’re going to turn Russia around!”
Later, when I went to stay with them, I would watch Misha leap into his little Zhiguli each morning as if throwing himself into the saddle, and drive off in a cloud of dust to his own Wild West. He talked little about the risks he was running, even to Tatiana. But she overheard the whispered late-night phone calls. She saw how he was ruining his health, how he twitched, talked in his sleep, and woke stare-eyed with fear. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand it,” he muttered one morning at breakfast. “My nerves are shot. The games we have to play, day in, day out, to stay out of the clutches of the police; hiding in ditches, paying them off. Everyone talks about the mafia, but the government are the real racketeers. You can come to an arrangement with the mafia, if you know how to talk to them.”
Misha was born in Ukraine, into a peasant family. His parents survived the great famines that killed some five to eight million Ukrainians—no one even knew how many. His father, badly wounded in the war, lay concussed for six months. Only because his officers valued him was he, an ordinary soldier, given the precious American drugs that saved him. After that he was sent to the camps on some trumped-up charge. Through all this he remained a man of great sweetness, Tatiana said. Misha had inherited that quality. How indeed was he going to survive in the jungle of Russian business?
Tatiana had an inner poise that set her apart from the anxious strivings of her husband and friends. Her pale beauty was typical of her father’s people, the Mordvins, a Finno-Ugric minority who had lived on the River Volga since long before the Slavs settled the steppes. For a beautiful young woman, she was curiously lacking in vanity. At school, she was said to have been so ugly that the other children kept their distance, calling her “Sergievna,” “Sergei’s daughter.” Through hard work she won a place at Moscow’s Baumann Institute. Once there she grew her hair, changed her image, and fell in love with another scholarship kid from the sticks, Misha.
Staying with her, I began to appreciate how looking after a small family could occupy all her time. In theory, Marx had running water, gas, and electricity. But in practice, one or other and sometimes all three were turned off for periods every day. Keys were another problem: there was nowhere in town to get one cut, so Tatiana had the only key. The family appeared to live with all “mod cons,” but there was nothing modern or convenient about their lives. Their washing machine had not worked for five years, the man who came to mend it having walked off with a broken part and never returned. The town had a launderette, but it was a long way away and it tore clothes to shreds. So, like everyone else, Tatiana washed the family’s clothes by hand. As for the telephone, since Misha was earning reasonable money, they jumped the five-year queue to get one installed. But you could use it only for local calls. For all others, you had to walk half an hour to the main post office. There, you booked and paid for the call, returned home, and waited until the manually operated switchboard chose to put you through.
When I first came to Marx I was surprised to find educated people sleeping on broken sofas, keeping their baths full of water, using cupboards without handles, and eating cold spaghetti. Now, watching Tatiana struggling with the pointless trials of everyday life, I appreciated how hard it was to bring up a family without taking to the bottle, or sinking into a depression. Sanity required that you did only the minimum to keep life going.
• • •
Just before I arrived, the balconies fell off an entire block of flats while the owners were asleep in their beds. As the town fell ever further into disrepair, the future, too, was retreating.
CONNOISSEUR OF SILENCES
All this time, the person I was most anxious to get to know was the awkward, brave, poetical Anna. But like a bird, she would dart in for a crumb of friendship before hopping out of reach again. Years later, I was astonished when Natasha told me she had been deliberately leaving her diary out on the table for me to read. I wish I had known. For she was still stonewalling me with her silences. What I write here about her came out only much later, when she started to relax.
Anna grew up in a remote Volga village where cleverness was regarded with suspicion. An only child, her parents worked on a collective farm. It was her maternal grandmother who largely brought her up. The old woman was educated at a Leningrad school for blue-blooded girls, before war swept her out to the steppes. Anna’s childhood was marked by the tug-of-war between her grandmother’s middle-class expectations and those of her rural father. But Anna remained obdurately herself.
She always hated being cuddled and never joined the village girls who flocked together, giggling and sharing secrets. I imagine her crouching awkwardly over a book or watching a trail of ants cross the porch of her family’s wooden house. In July, the month of the falling stars, I see her creeping out of the house in the evening to lie on the rough grass of the steppe, and breathe the smell of wormwood. When the night sky lit up with summer lightning, I picture her rushing outside to wait for the cloudbursts that followed.
She came to trust animals more than people. Anna’s mother had a gift with animals, and the household was full of them. When someone ran over a dog, or found a bird with a broken wing, they left it with her mother. A man brought an owl which had been shot and wounded. The bird refused to leave when it was healed and lived with the hens. It never attacked the chicks, or took more than its fair share of food. There was a crow that could not fly, too. On summer evenings, it would sit by Anna’s mother in front of the house and defend her against anyone who came too close.
Only rarely did the wider world intrude on village life, as it did on the day of the oranges. It was midwinter, and the snow was deep on the steppes when Anna’s grandmother sent her out to the shop. Usually, the same meager array of goods sat there year in year out. But that day the shop was glowing: there were oranges everywhere. Anna had never seen one before. A freight train from central Asia had overturned, carrying fruit for the Party elite. The villagers went home with bulging bags, then queued again. All winter, the snow remained littered with orange peel. Not until she went to university was Anna able to start exploring the mysteries suggested by the sudden appearance of those oranges.
• • •
Before the fall of Soviet power I used to argue about the past with a Moscow friend called Grisha. He insisted that in Russia you could not afford to look back, because you would not survive what you found. I argued that only by facing the past could you move forward. In Marx, Anna watched me struggling to get people to talk about the past. She even introduced me to people. But it was only later that she admitted how hard she had battled to do the same herself.
Misfortune had rained down on this part of the Volga during the Soviet period. It was bitterly fought over in the Civil War, being a rich grain-producing region. When the Bolsheviks secured it, the Volga Germans’ reputation as farmers proved their downfall. Though mostly just thrifty peasants, to the Bolsheviks they were “kulaks,” class enemies. The grain quotas imposed were three times higher than elsewhere. Sometimes, they were higher than the harvests themselves. By 1920 the requisitioning parties were taking people’s last food, and next year’s seed corn as well. The poor killed their livestock. They ate grass and the thatch off their roofs.
As famine loomed, the German peasants exploded in rage. They buried their grain and staged armed revolts. They were not alone: much of the Russian countryside was in rebellion, but on the Volga it was worse. It was a brave Bolshevik who ventured unarmed into the countryside from Marxstadt (as Marx was then called). They risked being ripped apart. In the town square farmers were selling mechanical reapers for a loaf of bread.
By 1921 96.9 percent of the region’s population was starving. Hunger broke the peasants’ rebellion. In the early twenties, when other parts of the countryside were enjoying a respite, here on the Middle Volga a quarter of the population died in famines. Cannibalism was commonplace.
Until glasnost, it was a punishable offense to talk about these matters, and people were still afraid. I became a connoisseur of silences. There was the habit of fear, and the hope that if they stayed silent, the horror would die with them. But the toxic past had a way of seeping through, burdening the children with a distress that, being ignorant of the past, they had no way of combating.
Mostly, I retrieved clues and omissions, fragments of narrative. But there was too little matter, too much dammed-up feeling. The most devastating stories were the hardest to verify. For instance, I kept hearing how, after the Wehrmacht invaded in June 1941, the secret police tried to lure the Volga Germans into collaboration, in order to justify their impending deportation. Airplanes with fascist markings flew over the fields where the Volga Germans were harvesting. They dropped paratroopers, wearing fascist uniforms and armed with Valter pistols. The women, old men, and children rounded them up with their pitchforks and scythes and marched them into the nearest Party headquarters. They found that these “spies” did not even speak German. Some were Poles; others broke into fluent Russian when cornered. One pulled off his shirt to reveal his NKVD uniform underneath.
• • •
Saratov’s leading historian of the Volga Germans told me that this was a Volga German myth, born of a pathological need to prove their innocence. He had found no evidence of it in the archives. But the clues I picked up suggested it did happen. General Anders, some of whose Poles were involved, mentions it in his memoirs. Someone I knew had heard a retired Russian colonel from the Ministry of the Interior testify publicly that the “spies” were all shot, to destroy all evidence of this failed attempt to provoke the Volga Germans into betraying their country. In Siberia I met an old German who told me that a Soviet German Party apparatchik confessed on his deathbed that he was there when the harvesters brought in one such “spy”: the German Party workers were sworn to secrecy, and, terrible to record, they remained faithful to their promise, despite being deported for a crime they did not commit.
All this reminded me of a Russian saying: the real fools are not those who think they can predict the future, but those who believe they can predict the past. In the end, maybe my Moscow friend Grisha was right when he said that in Russia you could not afford to look back. Here, the past was toxic. It could be taken only in small doses.
• • •
Glasnost was well under way before Anna learned that her village was German before the war. There was only one Russian family in the village then, and they still lived there. She got to know the grandfather. He never talked about what he had seen, but he confided it to paper. He wrote compulsively; when his eyesight failed, the family took his pen away. He went on writing in pencil. When the lead wore down, he kept writing. Anna strained to read the words from the indentations left on the paper: he recalled the summer day when armed men arrived and rounded up his neighbors. When they were gone, he described galloping for his life on horseback, pursued by a stampede of maddened cows: udders bursting, they were desperate to find someone to relieve them of their milk.
Anna’s family was haunted by the past, too. One night when she was little and her parents were away she woke up to find her grandfather sitting with an axe in his hands, muttering about not being able to go into his room because “they” were waiting for him. After that, her parents hid all the axes and knives in the attic, leaving only one blunt knife in the kitchen. As he grew older, her grandfather’s “enemies” loomed larger. He would shout in his sleep, tormented by the fear that “they” were coming for him.
Anna tried to find out what had traumatized her grandfather. Although he had escaped the famines, prison, and labor camp, he was a Pole during years when that was cause for deportation. He disguised his name, pretending to be Belorussian.
When his family were evacuated from Leningrad, he volunteered to stay behind. He endured the Wehrmacht’s 872-day blockade; that winter of 1941 when, with the temperature at minus forty and rations down to two slices of bread a day, gangs were killing for ration cards, trading in rats and human flesh. He was one of the wraiths with lumpy green faces who came through, when some eight hundred thousand died of starvation.
Anna concluded that his trauma went back further, to 1938, when one in ten of the adult population was behind wire, and the secret police had their monthly quotas of arrests to fulfill. One night, armed men took Anna’s grandfather away. The family thought they would never see him again. But next morning he walked through the door, a free man. That was unheard of. When a Jew who admired Anna’s grandmother was arrested she blamed her husband, and tried to turn Anna against him. But she loved her grandpa.
“After his death I went into his room, and I could feel his terror,” she told me. “The walls of his room were steeped in it.” So, perhaps, was the next generation. One of Anna’s cousins spent years in an asylum, while tension surrounded Anna like a highvoltage fence. At night she barely slept, as if afraid that if she relaxed she might lose control.
Someone described Anna to me as a pravednik, or truth bearer. It was a phrase the writer Nikolai Leskov used to describe some of his heroes. He took the concept from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is challenged to spare the cities for the sake of a handful of innocents. The pravedniki in Leskov’s stories were ordinary men and women distinguished by their readiness to sacrifice themselves for others. By this definition, Anna was indeed a pravednik. But with the collapse of the Russian German homeland, she had lost her cause.
I had been looking for someone to blame for the failure of that plan to revive the homeland for Russia’s Germans on the Volga. But Anna’s conclusion was that there was no point in blame, that only the bone’s prayer and the wind over the steppe would heal what had been done.
THE DEVIL’S TUNE
When Natasha’s KGB cousin advised her not to move to Marx, because the German homeland was not going to happen, he knew what he was talking about. The KGB ran a brilliant campaign of destabilization against the reestablishment of that homeland, and it seems to have worked. What follows is an account of what I think happened, though thanks to the wall of silence, piecing together any coherent account was hard. If I am right, the story is revealing about the way Russia’s secret service goes about its work against its own people.
The operation was probably hatched in 1989, when Gorbachev’s liberal policies were running into trouble. The problem was that the Russian Germans had been promised a homeland, and their cause was legitimate. But with violent ethnic clashes breaking out over the Soviet Union’s southern flank, the prospect of creating a new ethnic enclave in the middle of Russia, particularly one connected to a European power, was alarming.
The man who ran the KGB’s Russian German desk was Alexander Kichikhin. In Russian his name sounds like a sneeze, so let’s call him Sneezer. His task was to discredit the Russian German leadership so severely that the collapse of the project could be blamed on them. This was not easy, since under glasnost many of the KGB’s traditional tools of manipulation had lost their effectiveness.
First, Sneezer set out to win their trust. He claimed to have been duped into believing that the Soviet Germans really were fourth columnists for the Nazis in the Second World War; now that he knew the truth, he had become the Volga homeland’s chief advocate. To demonstrate this, he wrote a series of articles in the national press which “proved” how Marx’s irrigation boss orchestrated opposition to the homeland. The move worked: many Russian Germans began to trust him.
Next, Sneezer set about ensuring that they would elect a malleable leader. His choice fell on an ambitious young Russian German scientist. The man was sounded out: was he interested in becoming leader of this new German homeland? Hearing of this, his fellow Germans fell into Sneezer’s trap. They assumed they were about to be granted their homeland, and duly voted the scientist in. From then on Sneezer’s task was easy, for the scientist was excitable and politically very inexperienced.
By this time Sneezer had worked himself into such a position of trust with his victims that they appointed him as a delegate at the Russian Germans’ conference. There, he made a speech claiming that twenty-two out of thirty-four of their old leaders were KGB collaborators. This unleashed a storm of mistrust and paranoia, and destroyed the reputation of the one Russian German leader with any political experience.
Finally, presumably in order to prove conclusively that he was “their man,” he camped out in Red Square, in the summer of 1990, to protest on behalf of Russia’s German minority. He wrote to the president, the prosecutor-general, and two hundred Soviet deputies. Ridiculous though this all was, Sneezer got away with it. He proved adept at exploiting the weaknesses of the Russian Germans, their demoralized state, their simplicity and inflamed sense of historical injustice. For he knew how law-abiding they were, how much they longed to be accepted by Soviet power. He understood the psychology of their despair.
To this day, some Russian Germans still defend Sneezer’s efforts on their behalf as well-intentioned. But this is what I believe happened to that plan to give Russia’s Germans back a homeland. It was a dark tale, so dark that I was struggling to keep my hopes alive. To undo that authoritarian conditioning was going to take far longer than I had imagined. But the process had begun, slow as it was, as I could see in Marx. Starting with the most basic unit of society, the individual, people were just beginning to imagine how they might live differently; how they might slough off the old obedience, learn about personal choice, risk, and responsibility.
AN ABYSS OF STARS
I had grown fond of my friends in Marx. But as the town returned to sleepy normality and the story I was following dried up, I was thinking of giving up. Then something intervened which changed the course of my travels.
I had seen only one faintly encouraging project in Marx. It was a settlement being built way out on the steppes to house a community of refugees from Uzbekistan. The refugees were Russian Germans, and the project was being financed by German money. The men were helping with the building, working at furious speed, all day and into the night under arc lights. In my desperation, I was wondering whether perhaps I should be following the fortunes of this new settlement instead. So later that summer I decided to visit the Uzbek town from which the Russian Germans were fleeing.
I asked Ira (daughter of my Russian mother, Elena) to come with me. With inflation rising all the time, she could not afford a holiday. But with my dollars, I was rich enough for two that year. Together we looked for Zarafshan on the map. It lay northwest of Tashkent, below the Aral Sea, a long way from anywhere. We presumed it was an agricultural settlement, for large numbers of ethnic Germans were deported to central Asia after the Nazi invasion, and farming was their major occupation.
The one hitch was that Ira had to be back at work in nine days. This was time enough for the trip, but not for me to get a visa to enter Uzbekistan. Ira, who was an experienced traveler, proposed that I borrow a Russian passport. It was she who taught me how to travel cheaply in the glasnost years by posing as a Soviet citizen. “But it’s an independent country now!” I demurred. She just laughed: “How many times do I have to tell you? This is Russia—trust me, nothing’ll have changed.” I wavered, but not for long: if I wanted to travel with her my options were limited. Looking back, I realize how typical Ira’s reaction was: few Russians really understood at that juncture that their empire had gone for good.
When the plane touched down in Tashkent, it seemed Ira was right. The bored officials barely glanced at my passport. I began to relax: the rest of the journey involved only a domestic flight from a smaller airport. Next morning when we turned up for this flight I had almost forgotten the risk I was running. The air smelled of blossom and woodsmoke and Ira and I were in a holiday mood.
We agreed that Ira would do the talking, lest my accent give me away. But I need not have worried. The plump Uzbek woman on passport control spoke Russian much more heavily accented than mine. She let us through. We passed through the second control with similar ease. Only when a girl in the baggage section called me back did I become alarmed. They asked to examine my locked bag. My heart thumped: she would see that everything in it was foreign. She and her colleague examined the contents minutely. Then they let me go. We were through.
A few minutes later passport control called me back. My heart was pounding so loud by this time that I thought everyone in the drab departure hall could hear it. The woman apologized, but explained that they had just been fined for letting a foreigner through. Could they take another look at my passport? “It doesn’t look very like you,” she said dubiously. This was an understatement. The woman who had lent me her passport had a broad Slav face. Mine was thin. She had peroxide hair. Mine was brown. “Of course it’s me,” I said breezily.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight.”
“What’s your name?”
“Tamara Vladimirovna.” My mind blanked out on my surname, but Ira leapt in: “Su-kho-no-gaya,” we chanted indignantly.
“OK, OK, no need to …”
In silence we stalked away and sat in a far corner of the hall, not daring to look at one another. There was nothing normal about these precautions, and on a domestic flight, too. What kind of agricultural settlement place were we going to?
Our fellow passengers were Russians, not Uzbeks, and their pale faces and briefcases suggested they were not farmers. “They’ll probably be waiting for us with machine guns,” Ira whispered as we boarded the plane. “Learn your passport details.” As the plane’s shadow followed us over unbroken desert I muttered the details of my fake identity to myself. By the time the plane touched down I knew who I was—but not where we were.
The heat made the air buckle as we stepped out of the plane. The low hills all around looked like crumpled brown paper. There were armed guards, but they did not appear to be looking for anyone in particular. Relaxing slightly, we boarded the bus heading into town. It drove along suspiciously good roads, between well-built five-story blocks, letting passengers off as it went. Whatever this place was, it was large and rich. There was no trace of an old Uzbek town, or of agriculture. Apart from the desert scrub, there was hardly a plant in sight. A sign by the road read:
THROUGH THE WILL OF THE PARTY AND WITH THE PEOPLE’S HANDS THE TOWN OF ZARAFSHAN SHALL BE BUILT HERE.
Finally, Ira and I were the only passengers left. Where did we want to go, the driver asked? “Oh, just drop us in the center of town,” said Ira casually. He turned and peered at her suspiciously. “Center? What center?” Hastily, I produced the address I had been given. It was that of the mayor, Oscar Wentland. Muttering, the driver let us off by a cluster of five-story blocks identical to the others.
It was midday and there was no one around. We looked for a telephone. Spotting a wraith-like woman resting her shopping bags on a bench, I approached her. “If you’re after a phone there aren’t any.”
“Must go, must go …” she said, scuttling away.
We sat down and looked around us. Not a door slammed, not a window opened in the neat white housing blocks. The desert sun beat down on our heads. We sat in silence.
“I’m sorry, Ira.”
“Don’t worry—let’s go to Bukhara instead.” That ancient city, key staging post on the great Silk Road, was due south of us, a long bus ride away. A bird shat on Ira’s head: “That means good luck,” she said brightly.
No one answered Oscar Wentland’s doorbell. We decided to find somewhere to leave our bags before exploring the town. On the floor above, an old woman with a deeply fissured peasant face came to the door. When I explained why we had come her eyes filled with tears. “My family’s German! Come on in.”
“Come quickly!” she bawled down the phone. “The relations from England have arrived!” She came back carrying a photograph album: “Oscar Wentland! Fancy him having family in England! My mother was a German baroness, you know. No, really,” she went on, catching our skepticism. “Grandpa was a professor at Vilnius University. Look at this!” It was a photograph of a swan-necked beauty in a high-necked Edwardian dress. “That’s her. She was always composing something. So was Father—his first wife was Rachmaninov’s niece.” I tried not to laugh.
“And that’s Father,” the old woman went on. “He was high up in the Comintern.” Soviet intelligence had created the Communist International in the 1920s to harness the wishfulness of Western intellectuals to Soviet ends. It succeeded beyond its wildest imaginings. Bright young Hollywood directors, the intellectual cream of the Left Bank, of Berlin and Cambridge—they all proved susceptible. But for all their success, in the late thirties, the Comintern spymasters were charged with being Western spies themselves. Could the handsome dreamer in the yellowing photograph really be the father of this garrulous peasant? Only when she took her guitar and started singing did I believe her. For the light, ironic German romances she sang in a cracked, melodious voice were not Soviet. They belonged to that sophisticated central European culture that had been broken underfoot by marching armies.
A ring on the doorbell interrupted our recital. A tall, angry woman in scarlet strutted in on very high heels. Oscar Wentland’s wife, Ludmila, cut off the old woman and marched us downstairs to her flat. Closing the front door, she stood with her back against it. She had bright pink spots on her cheeks: “You might have warned us.” Phone lines to Zarafshan were down, I explained, but Ludmila went on. “If only Oscar were here.” He was away on a business trip. She sounded desperate.
I reassured her. “Don’t worry. Just give us a few telephone numbers and we’ll—” “You don’t have a clue,” Ludmila interrupted. “You can’t even step outside the door—they’re looking for you.”
“Who d’you think? The FSB.”
I sat down rather suddenly.
“Don’t you know anything about this place?” she asked, incredulous.
Ludmila’s face passed from incredulity to fury. Then she laughed until the tears fell.
Zarafshan was a closed town, she explained. It was built around a vast complex of gold and uranium mines. Under the old regime foreigners had not been allowed here. “In theory the security was strict, but in practice it was all right. Now it’s awful! It’s a punishable offense not to announce the arrival of a foreigner to the FSB within twenty-four hours. You’d have been fine if it hadn’t been for that old bag—she’s the town gossip. The news was around the factory in minutes. You can’t stay here—they know where you are!”
“We’ll leave—we’ll go to Bukhara.”
“Not a chance,” Ludmila answered, serious again. “You can’t get out of here. There are no buses, and the next flight is tomorrow. Sit down. I must make some calls.” She walked out, closing the door on the phone’s long extension cord.
We huddled on the sofa, considering our options. Ludmila could hand us over to the FSB, or she could hide us, but she was the mayor’s wife; she had to go on living here. When “they” caught up with us how was I going to explain my frivolous decision to borrow a Russian passport?
Ludmila returned looking calmer. “Let’s get you out of here. Hurry!” We sprinted to her small car and headed out of town, toward those crumpled brown hills. As town gave way to scrub, and scrub to a leafy suburb of small dachas, she relaxed slightly. “It’ll probably be all right. Oscar’ll sort something out. He’s arriving tomorrow morning from America. I’ll just have to keep you out of the way till then.”
She drew up at a bungalow set in a grove of fruit trees. We spent the afternoon at the dacha, picking up fallen apricots, which Ludmila split and laid in the sun. We worked in silence. I was mortified. The whole escapade was so unnecessary. Ludmila was taking a big risk. A gold mine! Now the airport security made sense. A car drew up and I retreated under the trees. But it was only a friend of Ludmila’s. Sasha ran the airport. His fair-haired good looks were marred by a squint so severe that to look directly at us he turned his face to one side. “How did you hear about us?” he asked. “Germans—what Germans?” Then he, too, laughed. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?
“You’re in deep trouble,” he went on, squinting, grinning from ear to ear. “You couldn’t have picked a worse person to talk to than that hag. The news’ll be all around town. They’ll catch up with you—it’s only a matter of time. I’d get out if I were you.” Get out! I had to walk away or I would have said something rash. He knew very well that there was no way out until tomorrow.
I went on collecting apricots, leaving Sasha talking to Ira. As I passed with an armful of fruit he was telling a story. “This tall, shining figure was walking toward him. ‘Stop!’ he shouted—the figure went on coming. He shouted for his mates. One fired a round of bullets—the figure went up in a shower of sparks.” Was he pulling Ira’s leg? But the slight smile on his face looked more like embarrassment. “They found the guy who’d fired the shot lying on the ground with one hand around a telephone receiver. It’d been ripped out of the wall. There were signs of a fight all around. The guy was unconscious, paralyzed from the waist down. When he came to he was scared witless. Kept saying ‘they’ were coming for him. ‘We came to help you with your ecological disaster,’ they said, ‘and you met us with gunfire. We’ll be back. Meanwhile, we’re borrowing your legs. You’ll be paralyzed for ninety-three days.’ And they did come for him again. It was in the ward—in full view of lots of people. He was carried to the door by invisible hands. He clung on to the doorpost—people rushed up and dragged him back to bed.”
“So what happened?” Ira asked.
“After three months he recovered the use of his legs.”
When Sasha left I asked Ira what that was all about.
“Something that happened recently on night watch at the mine.”
“He was pulling your leg—”
“Things like that are happening all the time, he said.” When I asked Ludmila to explain she groaned. “I’ve not seen a thing myself. Ask Vasily Vasilevich. He’s Oscar’s best friend. I’ll be taking you over there when he’s finished work.”
Vasily Vasilevich was the engineer in charge of supplying the water that kept the fifty thousand people in this desert town alive. The light was failing when Ludmila drove us over, and the windows of his bungalow were dark. “He’ll be here any minute.” I got out of the car. A dry wind was blowing off the desert. The sound of rustling leaves was magnified by the emptiness. The headlights fell on chunks of stone stacked along one side of the house. I was looking at them when a voice from the darkness said: “Let me give you some light.” The bare bulb revealed a thin, tanned man in his fifties in faded brown shorts and a half-buttoned shirt. With his bright blue eyes and enchanting smile, he looked like some desert Ariel.
“People think the desert’s dead, but that’s because they don’t know how to read it—the Syr Dar’ya used to run near here on its way to the Aral Sea. Now every drop of water we use comes from two hundred kilometers away. Look at this—it’s jaspar. That’s white opal. Here’s a fossilized tree. It wasn’t always desert here, you know.”
We sat on the verandah drinking fermented camel’s milk. The wind rustled the leaves of his orange grove. I looked into the darkness and thought of the FSB, out there looking for us. Vasya was talking about the region’s early history, showing us photographs of rock drawings, images of animals, men, and strange discs, said to be about four thousand years old. The pool of light on the verandah seemed to hold us in a spell of safety.
When I confessed how heedlessly I had flown in on a borrowed passport Vasya laughed. As a boy growing up in Siberia, he had stowed away on a plane for Moscow. “There was just room around the oxygen containers. It was summer, but there was ice forming on every surface. We’d have frozen to death if the plane hadn’t stopped at Tomsk. We arrived in Moscow none the worse for wear and had a marvelous few days exploring the city.”
Ira mentioned Sasha’s story of the shining man. “What’s that all about?” Vasya walked over to his collection of stones and handed us fragments of gray-green stone, light, like pumice. “I’ve had it tested by a lab. It’s sand that’s been heated to an extraordinarily high temperature. Do you see the slight curve?” he said. “They’re part of a saucer-shaped crater, about twenty meters across.”
“Do you mean a UFO crater?” Ira asked.
“Yes. We see things like that all the time.” Despite the smile, he was serious. “The earth here gives off an energy they need. Vortex energy, they call it. They come to recharge themselves. But they also come to help.”
It began a few years ago, he explained. People started bringing stories to Ludmila’s husband, who was first secretary of the Communist Party. They were seeing UFOs, shining beings, all sorts of odd things. They wanted Oscar to “do something.” He handed the problem over to Vasya.
“And what did you do?”
“Oh, this and that! But Oscar’s their chosen man, not me.” Overnight, Vasya, a loyal Party member, had been drawn into a world teeming with invisible creatures. There was a hierarchy that ranged all the way from shining beings down to hairy runts, poltergeists, and little devils: “There are rough types, too. They’re the small ones, who haven’t made it. They throw things around, beat people up, and do all sorts of spiteful things.”
He was talking lightly, a slight smile playing on his face. Was he teasing us, I wondered? As if in response he went into the house and returned carrying a photograph: “Take a look—I’d just put a new film in my camera. When I developed it I found this image on one of the first frames I’d taken when I was winding on the film.” The photograph was black, except for one corner, which was brightly lit, with a leering face. The snout was long, like a pig’s, and there was the blurred outline of something like a paw over its mouth. “What on earth is it?” I asked. “It’s a domovoi,” he replied.
At that point, I gave up trying to make sense of anything. We were back in the world of monsters. Domovois were creatures from Russian folklore. After the alarms of the day, it was comforting sitting there, held in the ring of light cast by the bare bulb, listening to the fairy tales of this unlikely Scheherazade. The wind off the desert was blowing up, tossing the branches of Vasya’s orange trees. The darkness was alive with fantastical possibilities, ones which kept at bay the real threat that Zarafshan’s secret police were closing in on us.
Above us the stars hung so low that they seemed almost within reach. A young man dropped by to return Vasya’s night binoculars, which he had borrowed to watch for UFOs. I picked them up. Through them, the heavens came alive: there were gashes of greenish yellow light; luminous patches as faint as sighs; stars whose light throbbed and swelled. A sky like that made anything seem possible.
We stayed late, reluctant to move beyond the circle of safety that Vasya had drawn around us with his stories. As he walked us to the car, Ira asked how his own views had been changed by these experiences. “For twenty years I was a good communist. And I’ve always been a pragmatist—I’m an engineer after all,” he replied. “But now I know there’s a higher force controlling and guiding us. The beings are clear about that. ‘You must live in such a way that your good deeds outweigh your bad,’ they tell us. They’re leading us, prompting us—sometimes very harshly. But always in the direction of good.”
We said good-bye reluctantly. “I’m sure I’ll see you again,” he said. “Oscar’ll sort you out. Drop by anytime.” We drove back in silence. The headlights lit up five-story blocks on either side of the road, blocks where those people lived who had brought their Party bosses these weird stories.
I spent the night clinging to the side of Ludmila’s narrow sofa, Ira’s feet in my face, dreaming I was falling into an abyss of stars.
A PIECE OF GREEN PUMICE
Next morning, Ludmila’s husband, Oscar Wentland, arrived by the early plane. The Party type, stocky, fair-haired, and Germanic, he breathed authority. He sat us down and laid out the situation: if the FSB found us, he would be unable to protect us. But he could help us get out of town; the next flight was leaving in an hour. Meekly, we agreed.
He looked at his watch. “We still have time. Do you have any questions?” When I told him what prompted my visit he gave a hollow laugh: “They’re broken people, parasites. They don’t even speak German. They’re only going for the free housing.” I bit my tongue. I did not like the way he was talking, but time was short. When Ira asked him about the shining beings Oscar’s response was brisk: “I might have guessed it—Vasya’s been telling you stories. Flying saucers, little green men … You must take what he says with a pinch of salt. I’m different. I’ve never seen anything paranormal myself.” So that was that. The cock had crowed and the creatures of the night had vanished.
Sasha led us to the plane by a back route and ran with us across the scorching tarmac under the pounding desert sun. The plane’s propellers were turning as he bundled a man and a woman off to make room for us. “Mind you keep your dark glasses on,” he said by way of a farewell. “I dread to think what they’ll do if they catch you with false papers and no visa.” As we flew back over the Kyzylkum desert, Ira and I sat mute, shaken.
My luck ran out on the last leg of our journey. What did it was the fact that the passport had run out four weeks earlier. Tashkent airport’s wiry Uzbek security chief led me behind a green curtain. “Come on, you’re not really Sukhonogaya, are you?” Blushing, I admitted it. The man looked incredulous; he was used to dealing with real criminals. Brushing aside my amateur attempt to bribe him, he took my passport and disappeared through the green curtain.
He reappeared and summoned Ira. She returned looking subdued, and gave me my passport: “Hurry. The plane’s waiting. I’ll come on the morning flight.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. Ira lowered her voice: “He offered me a deal. You can go if I spend the night with him.”
“And you agreed!”
“I’ll manage. He’s not a bad man. Don’t worry.” She was looking at her shoes.
The Uzbek was grinning from ear to ear: “Go on then. Don’t worry—I’ll take good care of her!”
There was a long silence. I thought about the prison cell which was probably waiting for me. I was very tempted. But I couldn’t leave without Ira. “No. Thank you, but I’m not going. If Ira’s staying, so am I.” We stood awkwardly, frozen in indecision, a ridiculous trio.
Then the pilot poked his head through the curtain: “Well, are they coming or not?”
The police chief growled. “Ah, what the hell. Off you go, both of you. But you owe me one …”
Back in Moscow, the rubbish was still piled high in the stinking streets and the cups in the sink were still unwashed. They were reassuringly real. From the baroness’s daughter and the gold town in the desert to the UFOs and hairy devils, our adventure was receding hour by hour, becoming no more than a tall story. There were so many questions I wished I had asked. What did Vasya mean when he said that Oscar was “their” chosen man, for instance?
Ira’s mother was away. I slept a lot, cleaned every surface, and met up with Ira in the evenings. “Thank heaven you were there,” I said as we stood on the balcony, watching the children playing on the swings. “If I’d been on my own, I’d be going crazy now, wondering whether I’d imagined it all.” We found ourselves avoiding meeting up with other people: what could we say? We could turn our trip into a funny story, but that would have been too easy. We liked Vasya, and he was no fool. “I knew people were going to laugh at me,” he said when we were leaving. “But I can take that. We’ve got to tell the truth, for the sake of, well, humanity.”
He gave me a fragment of stone. It came from a UFO crater, he said. He would spot them on his flights over the desert to check the water pipes. The outline would appear suddenly, from one day to the next. Some were radioactive, but this one had healing properties: “For those with the gift, it has the power to put them in touch with other worlds.” Back in Moscow, we looked at it. Whatever it might have been in the Kyzylkum desert, now it was just a piece of pumice, with a greenish glaze.
On the train down to Saratov I tried to find a way of writing about our Zarafshan trip, but it was no good. Up until now, the language of reason had served my needs perfectly well. But that language was no use when it came to Zarafshan. Unless I could find a way of understanding it, I was not going to be able to write about it, at least not without mocking Vasya. He did not deserve that.
This time, I found the very banality of Marx reassuring. Experimentally, I mentioned the trip to Natasha and Igor. It came out as a funny story and they laughed. I did not mention it again. I was uncomfortable, on this frontier between the mapped and the unmapped territory, between the world of reason and the land of those fabulous monsters.
I took a bus out to Stepnoye, where those families from Zarafshan were living. The houses looked like rows of freshly painted toys, abandoned by some giant child on the red mud of the empty steppe. The incumbents had moved in months ago. But with few exceptions, they had made no effort to organize the community, or even to plant their own gardens. I was incredulous: these people had what every Russian dreamed of—new housing, land, opportunities. But they were sitting in their houses, looking out over the red mud, getting drunk. What were they waiting for?
I spent the day with a biologist. Galya and her nuclear physicist husband (he had worked in Zarafshan’s uranium mines) were the only people in the settlement with a higher education. She was rearing chicks, growing vegetables, and planning a fish farm. At one point she turned around, put her hands on her hips, and hissed: “Look here. You’re amazed that no one’s opened a shop, that they haven’t planted anything. You don’t understand—if these degenerates haven’t got something, they’ll do without. The notion they could improve their lives wouldn’t enter their heads! I’m ashamed for you to see this. But what shames me most is that I’m one of the few people here who’s got any idea that there’s anything to be ashamed of!” Galya was spring-loaded, so close to breaking point that I feared what would happen if I touched her.
Late that night, I ventured to ask about Zarafshan’s paranormal epidemic. Galya groaned. “If I hear the word UFO again—” But her husband interrupted. “Yes, weird things were happening all the time. For instance, one night, with some other scientists, I saw a cigar-shaped craft heading for the airport. As a scientist, what struck me was the way it stopped in the sky, then streaked off in another direction. That just didn’t make scientific sense. But that’s what I saw—we all did.” Perhaps it was collective hysteria, I speculated, relieved to be talking to a scientist. “No, there was more to it than that,” he said firmly.
Next morning I took the bus back to Marx. Broken people, Oscar called them. I had bridled at the judgment, but he seemed to be right. I could not bear the implications. I got off the bus feeling wretched. The street was flanked by housing blocks which looked as if they had been bombarded with mortar fire. Keeping my eyes lowered, I kept walking for the sake of walking, to avoid returning to Engels Street. How Igor was going to crow! He had tried to dissuade me from going to Stepnoye. “They’ll be broken people, serfs,” he said, eerily echoing Oscar’s words. “You can set them up in new houses, give them land, but they’ll be sitting there drinking themselves to death. Gimme, gimme—it’s all they know!” Could it really be that he was right? That all over Russia, people who had lived with guaranteed jobs had unlearned the most basic instincts?
A sudden wind swept across the steppe, slapping the town, bending the poplars, sending washing flying. Soon, the wind would stop and the rain would sheet down. When it came, it was like a bucket being tipped over the town. I must have looked Job-like when I walked into the house on Engels Street. For Igor made tea, wrung out my wet clothes, and kept his judgments to himself.
When the sun came out, we walked across the square, past the ruined church and the statue of Lenin, down to the pier where the Volga ferries used to dock before traffic on the river stopped, when the Soviet music ended. During the famines of the 1920s barges full of starving people searching for food had docked here. Then, in September 1941, thousands and thousands of Volga Germans sat here, surrounded by armed guards, waiting to be deported. All this belonged to a past which had for so long been forbidden territory.
We looked out to the white cliffs on the river’s far bank. A nightingale sang in the elms and the fish were rising, leaving ripples on the surface of the water. “To live surrounded by this beauty, and to squander it so—that’s what makes me mad!” sighed Igor. He talked about the happy times he and Natasha had spent here, messing about in a boat in the early days. But when he started complaining again, I snapped. “It’s your fault. You’re chasing her away. I think you’re just bored. Go ahead. But soon you’ll have destroyed your love and you’ll be alone. Is that what you want?”
Igor looked shocked. But when Natasha arrived home he was contrite and loving. After supper, I poured out my heart about my trip to Stepnoye. “So now you see,” Natasha said after a long silence. “We thought we were different, that when the Party lost power it would be fine. We thought we’d spend our time being free! We had no idea how much we’d all become products of the Soviet system.”
Igor interrupted. “We knew what we wanted freedom from. But not what we wanted it for.” Yes, that was what lent the edge to Natasha and Igor’s despair. As elite intellectuals, who opposed Communist Party rule, they assumed they were part of the solution.
“You in the West were our dream,” Natasha went on, hitting her stride, the Siberian Cassandra. Her wild curls stood up and her pale face shone. “And when it collapsed, we blamed you. You weren’t to blame. We just had no idea how to be free. We were like those prisoners who refuse to leave because they’ve nowhere else to go. However hard you try you’ll never really understand what it was like to live in a country that was one great concentration camp. I’m not using the word loosely. It’s no reflection on your intelligence or empathy. It’s just that you were born free.
“When the Soviet Union fell, the country went through a sort of nervous breakdown. We came here looking for a new beginning. We didn’t understand that there are no new beginnings in Russia, only long and terrible endings. We didn’t realize that nothing could change until people find themselves.”
That night, long after Natasha and Igor were asleep, I sat by the open window with the three-legged cat on my knee, arguing with myself. If Natasha was right, if there was no new beginning in sight, I really ought to pack up now, go home. I had come all this way only to find that the people of Marx had reacted to the future they were offered by closing in on themselves, giving in to ancient fears. Now, on top of that, there was Stepnoye and the sight of those “broken people” sitting in their brand-new houses. I had ventured into territory where no foreigner should go, learned what I did not want to learn. It was beyond weeping, impenetrably dark.
Hold on, now, hold on. What about your friends in Marx? Don’t you care what happens to them? And what about that trip to Zarafshan? Ira and I had caught only a glimpse of what was going on there. But the situation did seem to bear a vague resemblance to the events that had hit Marx. There, too, a coherent community appeared to have responded collectively, possibly also with collective hysteria, with its own local variant of the crisis triggered by the end of the communist empire. The people of Zarafshan had not given in to the same ancient fears, though. An aspect of the Russian psyche had been thrown up from the depths in that desert town that baffled me. But it was intriguing.
How absurd the premise was with which I had set off on my travels. I had come here expecting the Russians to behave in a Western, indeed Marxist way. I had assumed that they would be rebuilding Russia on a Western model, too. How arrogant! Slowly, from the vantage point of Russia’s provincial hinterland, I was starting to appreciate how differently many Russians responded to events from that Westernized elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Of course I had no idea what Russia’s future was going to look like. But if I was serious about wanting to understand the underlying forces shaping it, perhaps I should learn more about Zarafshan and the collective visions of those miners and engineers. I had been offered the opportunity of peering into the collective unconscious of this other Russia. How could I resist that?
THE ART OF MIND CONTROL
Back in London that winter, I tried to write up our trip to Zarafshan. Again, I found myself off the map, back in the terrain of fabulous monsters. I even thought of leaving the story out of this book, but that seemed faint-hearted. It was easy to write about those shining beings and hairy devils as a comical traveler’s tale. But that brought me no closer to understanding how someone like Vasya, an engineer and senior Communist Party member, could have believed what he heard, and been so changed by it.
Digging around, I learned that Soviet scientists had taken the esoteric powers of the mind much more seriously than we in the West, for reasons that went back before the Russian Revolution. The discipline of psychology was new then, and embraced everything from psychoanalysis to psychic research as well as the occult. Hypnosis was being studied by mainstream scientists in the West, too, as a physiological or neurological phenomenon. Only after the First World War did Western science settle for a purely materialist explanation of energy.
Once a socialist revolution had taken place in Russia, you might have expected the same to happen there. But the wild expectations bred by the new regime led to a different outcome. The new “scientific” ideology aspired to do more than redesign human nature; it dreamed of mastering the whole world of natural phenomena.
Some scientists saw the revolution as an opportunity to reclaim the Fourth Dimension from the mystics and occultists. They set out to tap the source of energy behind it in the name of socialism. So while the esoteric powers of the mind became taboo in the West because they defied a materialist paradigm, in the communist empire, ironically, these powers went on being studied.
The leading prerevolutionary authority on hypnosis was a scientist called Vladimir Bekhterev, who died before he could fall in the purges. He was interested in those realms of human behavior that bypass conscious processes: religious hysteria, pogroms, demonic possession. A radical himself, he welcomed the Revolution, though that did not stop him from regarding it as an example of hypnotic influence on a mass scale.
Bekhterev was not mystically inclined himself, but he could see no essential difference between physical and spiritual phenomena: to him, they all seemed to derive from the same “world energy.” After his death most of his ideas were publicly discredited. But he had used hypnosis effectively to treat mental illness, and his pioneering work remained a standard Soviet treatment. Nor was his research on hypnosis and other mysterious powers of the mind entirely abandoned. In secret laboratories his disciples carried on the work quietly, still funded by the state.
The early buzz of Soviet interest in the esoteric powers of the mind had other spin-offs, too. Under Stalin they became a branch of the Soviet entertainment industry. Telepathists and hypnotists regularly gave public performances. Stalin himself was so interested in the subject that he subjected the regime’s leading psychic, Wolf Messing, to a series of tests he devised himself. Commandeered in mid-performance, Messing was ordered to steal 100,000 rubles from Moscow’s Gosbank. Using his hypnotic powers, Messing was reported to have walked into the bank, under the scrutiny of official witnesses, and proceeded to sign a blank piece of paper in lieu of a check; the cashier duly handed the money over. Next, he was required to enter Stalin’s heavily guarded country dacha without a pass. Messing hypnotized the guards into believing he was Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s top secret policeman, whom he looked nothing like.
In the 1960s, triggered by Western press reports of America’s use of ESP, Soviet laboratories researching the subject opened all over the place. For a few years the subject was discussed in the Soviet press before the embargo fell again.
Some have claimed that Soviet interest in mind control played a part in the regime’s approach to controlling people’s hearts and minds. The writer Maxim Gorky was certainly well known to be interested in the Fourth Dimension, and he was one of the chief architects of Socialist Realism. I certainly remembered how, when I was researching Epics of Everyday Life, the strands of this Soviet preoccupation with the Fourth Dimension were surfacing all over the place. At the time, I laughed to see people rushing to their television sets for mass séances. But when I met Benya’s yellow-eyed extrasensor on the N. Gastello, I did not find it funny. In fact, for all my Western rationality, I was terrified. Now I was starting to understand why. Had the man tried to attack me physically, I would have known how to defend myself. But he attacked my mind, where I felt most intimately myself, and what is more he came very close to hypnotizing me. It was a humbling experience to find that, whether or not I believed in it, I was every bit as susceptible to the Fourth Dimension as all those credulous Russians.