Moscow was a city where appearances had always been deceptive. In Soviet times the unifying idea was equality. Now it was prosperity. Only a few years back, I was giving my secondhand clothes to Ira’s mother, Elena. Now she was the one mocking me for wearing the same shabby clothes year after year.

Apartment blocks and garish billboards were springing up in the city center. The streets were vivid with glamorous women. When Ira stepped out wearing her Garbo hat, thigh-length black boots, and long pale blue coat with velvet cuffs no one would have guessed that she and her new partner, Sasha, were living in a cubicle in a high-rise a long way from the city center. The couple were on their way now. They had bought a house in Hungary, and were at the heart of Moscow’s new, smart cinema set.

Yet that year there was fear in the air. It was hard not to be infected by it. I kept reminding myself that it was probably nothing but the fear of fear. Still, it was hard to be sure. Everyone had been warning me against the trains. An epidemic of robberies had broken out on the long-distance trains. Someone knew someone who had lost everything after being knocked out by an odorless gas in their locked compartment. A friend gave alarming detail about a spate of murders in which bodies were bundled off trains in the dead of night. To be a woman traveling alone was bad enough. To be a foreigner, too, well, that was courting danger. So by the time I boarded the sleeper for Saratov I was feeling more than usually anxious.

I need not have worried. A stout woman with crimson hair was traveling from Ukraine to a factory in Saratov in the hope of getting her hands on the billions owed to her factory. A balding, unemployed doctor was retraining as an extrasensor, or healer. As we pooled our picnics, the talk was of everyday horrors like cholera, which had surfaced again; of meat infected with tuberculosis; of the dangers of depositing money in the country’s unscrupulous banks.

On my way through Saratov I usually stayed with Vera, who befriended me when I arrived off Benya’s boat. But when I rang from Moscow this time a drunken voice, presumably her husband, told me she no longer lived there. She must have made her escape, joined her cult somewhere in the wilds of Siberia. I was delighted for her. But Saratov would be a sadder place without her.

It was too sad already. Unlike Moscow, no veneer covered the city’s wretchedness. People looked hunted and shabby. Plastic shop signs dangled, street lamps did not work, rubbish overflowed, and now and then a cavalcade of Mercedes limousines sped down the rutted streets, carrying the city’s mayor, or a mafia boss.

Natasha and Igor had finally managed to swap their house in Marx for a one-room flat in Saratov. But they seemed strangely reluctant to meet up. When we did, I understood why. Natasha was thin, jumpy, and so distracted that I was not sure she really knew who I was. Igor looked crushed.

They were trying to sell the flat and move to Siberia. This was a terrifying business. With privatization in full swing, the property market was dominated by thugs. Many had connections high up in the administration. People who had sold a flat were being found mysteriously murdered. For my friends, every encounter with a potential buyer was another round of Russian roulette. There was no way of knowing whether potential buyers were genuine or not. “I somehow thought it would be all right once we got out of Marx,” Natasha admitted, close to tears, chain smoking. “But we’re having to go through the whole thing all over again in Saratov. Seven years of my life it’s cost me.”

They had presumed it would be a matter of weeks before they could move back to Siberia, and the protection of Natasha’s powerful father. But weeks had turned into months. They had run out of money. Ever since I first met Natasha she had been telling me grandly that she was “done with possessions,” that she “didn’t want to be weighed down by furniture and all that clutter,” that she just wanted to be free. Now anything saleable had gone long ago.

When the couple moved to the city, Anna took pity on Igor and secured him a job as a photographer on her newspaper. He took wonderful photographs, but the job did not last. As usual, he had turned quarrelsome. “I told him to give in his notice at once,” Natasha confided. “He just can’t sustain normal relationships—he’s either got to be in control, or utterly dependent.” Since then, they had survived on the English lessons that Natasha’s advertisements brought in. Now that summer was here she was down to one pupil. During lessons, Igor sat in silence on the bed, behind the partition.

Under a white cloth in the corner of the room stood Igor’s invention, that machine for making shoulder pads. He was about to deliver it to his ex-wife when a gang searching for her Chechen lover broke into her Moscow atelier and smashed up everything. She had to flee for her life and was hiding out somewhere in the Caucasus.

•  •  •

Hoping to cheer Natasha up, one of her ex-pupils organized a picnic and asked Tatiana and me to come, too. On receiving this invitation, Tatiana rolled her eyes, but refrained from further comment.

We met up at Tatiana’s flat in Marx on a cloudless, sunny day. Natasha, mercurial as ever, looked like a different woman: her broad-cheekboned face, with its upturned nose, gleamed with excitement and her curls stood to attention. We were being driven by a tow-headed trader called Volodya with bright cheeks and hands like hams, and his business partner, a solemn young Dagestani.

Natasha contrived it so that she and I would travel on our own, chauffeured by the silent Dagestani. On the way, clinging on to my arm, she confided the saga of her many marriages. Igor was her fourth husband. She had bolted from the first three and now she was about to leave Igor. As soon as they sold the flat she was going to Canada to join her childhood friend, she boasted. She was longing to start a new life.

The more wonderful and talented her husbands were, the faster she ran away from them, as far as I could see. Her first, whom she had married when she was in her teens, was an artist, handsome and clever. “Sasha taught me how to live. He painted and sculpted and to this day when I see something beautiful, I long to share it with him.” So why had she left him? She brushed off the question: “He wasn’t made for marriage.” She paused. “Anyway, he committed suicide a bit later—and no,” she said, anticipating my next question, “not because of me. Sasha was his own man.” Husband number two was a successful businessman in St. Petersburg now. “I got bored,” was her only comment on that marriage. Her third husband was a cripple with “a talent for attracting pity.” Then there was Igor.

Natasha’s account raised more questions than it answered. What lay behind her boredom? There were so many things about her that did not add up. She talked a lot about her father, for instance. A construction boss, he had been part of the inner circle of the Communist Party that ran Siberia’s capital, Novosibirsk. She clearly adored him; he was the kindest, most able man in the world, she kept telling me. So why did she exchange her gilded life for penury in Marx? Was it just too easy? Did she need to load herself down with handicaps in order to feel alive? The more I saw of her, the less I could fit the pieces together. When Natasha was in high spirits, like today, she was great fun. But I had caught glimpses of another woman altogether, a black star who ate the light.

After a while, the car swerved off the road, following Volodya’s down an undulating track. We passed an old couple piling grass onto a wooden platform fitted to the sidecar of an ancient motorcycle. For them, summer brought no days off; every fine day, they would be out collecting hay to feed their livestock through the long winter.

•  •  •

As the car wound through a woodland of scrubby birch and elm, we passed quiet inlets of the Volga, fringed with yellow irises, where the odd fisherman was sitting. After driving through some rusting gates, our chauffeurs left us and drove off again, muttering about “fetching some stuff.” The place was an abandoned holiday camp. Before the fall of Soviet power, it would have been crowded this time of year. Now there were no awnings on the sunshades; the paint had peeled off the pedal boats, and the rusting swings lay upended by floodwater. Straggling birches were pushing the camp into the water.

Natasha raced down to the white sandy beach, dancing wildly: “Hooray! I’ve left my cage and the horrible beast I’m condemned to share it with! Who needs men? Anna’s not to be pitied—we’re the pathetic ones, the ones who’ve been imprisoned by men. I’ve done with them! From now on I’m going to live alone!”

“Don’t believe a word of it,” muttered Tatiana, “she’ll never leave Igor.”

The water stretched out like an inland sea to distant white cliffs on the far side. The scale of the Volga never ceased to take my breath away. A breeze puckered the green surface of the river. Huge dragonflies with blue bodies and iridescent wings hovered overhead. A heron rose up from the bullrushes. We sat on the white sand and talked. Slowly, the shadows of the poplars lengthened over the water. Still, our cavaliers had not reappeared. Desperately thirsty, we explored the camp, looking for drinkable water. We found taps. But when turned, they emitted only faint groans and scratchings, as if water sprites long trapped in the pipes were making their escape.

Finally, as dark fell, Volodya and his silent companion turned up with meat and alcohol in vast quantities, but no water or soft drinks. The bonfire flared up and we threaded chunks of lamb onto branches of willow, drank sweet Caucasian wine, and settled in for a catastrophic night.

Each time we tried to draw the silent Dagestani into conversation, Volodya would cut across whatever he was saying with a boast; about his car, his trading, his three pigs, seven hens, five sheep, and wife. Whatever anyone said, Volodya could do it better; whatever anyone had to offer, he had a better one. As he turned up his tape recorder, filling the silence with thumping pop music, I escaped into the water, swimming out until the group around the fire were swallowed up in darkness.

Mother Volga, they called it. Longest of Europe’s rivers, she flows through the Russian psyche, provoking her people to song and revolt. Russia’s expansion into the steppes had been one long story of ambition and insecurity. The Volga proved the key to controlling that steppe, as the Mongols showed when they set up their capital on its banks to the south of here, commanding trade routes in all directions. Muscovy’s control over the vital trade up the river remained precarious well into the sixteenth century. Samara and Saratov were originally built as fortresses. Pirates, runaway peasants, and sectarians sought refuge from the state down here. The greatest of the peasant revolts were mounted from this river, Stenka Razin’s in the seventeenth century, Emilian Pugachev’s a hundred years later.

Long before I ever saw it, I got to know the Volga through Gorky’s early stories. In its heyday as a trade route, it was heaving with life, crowded with sails and steamers; barges loaded with wheat and timber for the northern cities, dragged by lines of men; rafts carrying whole peasant households, complete with huts and cows. Today, thanks to the economic collapse, there was not a boat on it.

When I climbed back out of the water, Volodya was stripping off his shirt, challenging Natasha to arm wrestle him. Tatiana and I walked off along the beach: “I’m so sorry about this,” she said. “It’s just what I was afraid of. This is what passes for Having a Good Time here. It’s unbearable—people with no education, no conversation, who can conceive of no way of enjoying themselves that doesn’t involve booze.” It was obvious by now that Volodya had no intention of taking us back that night. I unfurled a damp, stinking mattress on a double-decker bunk in a beach hut which our Dagestani politely broke into for us, and went to sleep.

I woke from a dream that I was at sea in a storm, sinking in a small boat. It was dark outside, and the bunk was rocking to and fro, springs groaning. Below me, a man’s voice, thick with drink; a woman’s giggle. It was Volodya, but who was with him? Mosquitoes were devouring me. Burying myself in the fetid blanket shut out the insects, but not the squeals from the bunk below. There followed a crash and peals of laughter. It was Natasha. She had put her elbow through the window pane. Later, they both ran off into the night. In the silence I heard a quiet sigh. I was not the only witness of this scene.

Next morning, I found Tatiana sitting alone on the beach, arms around her knees. There was no sign of Natasha and Volodya. Here and there on the bushes bits and pieces of clothing were draped. We looked at one another and burst out laughing. “Volodya’s car’s gone.” This was more worrying, for Volodya had been far too drunk to drive. There was nothing we could do but wait, and nothing to drink but sweet wine; we preferred to go thirsty.

Tatiana sighed: “There you have it—the two Natashas, each devoted to different ends. Last night’s Natasha was not an aberration. That destructive force is real enough. It’s shaped her life, and it may well win in the end. Then there’s the other one, the one who can do anything, who is confident, generous with herself, who knows exactly what she can and what she can’t give. Perhaps in the end she was just given too much.

“You can’t pity her, though. Whatever she has, she’s chosen for herself. She started with everything—a powerful father who adored her, an education, a position, choices. Did you know that she was a brilliant mathematician, too? Why did she divorce Seryozha? Why did she leave Sasha? Don’t ask me. To spite her father? To spite herself? Who knows?” A long silence followed. “Have you noticed what they’ve all got in common—Anna, Natasha and Igor, Misha? Suicide. Natasha’s mother killed herself. So did Igor’s father. Misha’s grandmother and Anna’s grandfather …”

Some hours later, I spotted two faces peering out of the greenery.

Natasha’s hair stood up like Medusa, and her face was white: “How wonderful people are! What a miracle!” she said, and her voice seemed to be coming from a long way off.

VOLODYA: We couldn’t find anyone.

NATASHA: We were so frightened. Was there anyone left in the whole wide world?

VOLODYA: And how did we get here?

NATASHA: And why were we naked?

VOLODYA: It was all so strange!

NATASHA: Were there people left, I wanted to know.

VOLODYA: We wandered and wandered.

NATASHA: Or were we the only ones in the whole wide world?

VOLODYA: And wandered and wandered.

NATASHA: … then suddenly—a person! (looking at the smoldering fire)—Ah, a fire, I remember a fire.

VOLODYA: What can have happened?

NATASHA: There were others.

In the course of this performance, our Adam and Eve emerged from the greenery, blind drunk, confident that they had never been more entertaining. Natasha was wearing a blanket. Volodya covered his nakedness with a sheet. As we squirmed, Volodya fell on an unopened crate of vodka, while Natasha started, recognizing me suddenly. Struggling to focus, to piece events together in her foggy brain, she rocked back and forward, keening: “Now look what I’ve done—I’ve lost your respect, I’ve lost it, lost it, lost it!”

My heart went out to her. In a society that cultivated total dependence in its citizens, those who fought for their freedom did so at a terrible cost. Did Natasha have the strength left to realize her ambitions, or would she succumb to her dark side? There was no knowing.

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