FOLLOWING YELTSIN’S REELECTION, THE CHARISMATIC GENERAL Lebed, an outspoken opponent of the war, had finally brokered a peace agreement with the Chechens. The appearance on the political scene of this military hero boosted people’s hopes. Here at last was a credible, democratically committed successor to the failing Yeltsin. But Lebed’s political career was cut off by the same arbitrary methods that rescued the election for Yeltsin. Acting on the Kremlin’s behalf, Gusinsky’s NTV television channel aired old footage purporting to show Lebed’s links with the extreme right. Lebed was fired and disappeared from the political scene.
After the election, there was no stopping the oligarchs. Boris Berezovsky boasted that seven tycoons were controlling 50 percent of the Russian economy. Even if not strictly accurate, this was a fair measure of their political influence. Their deal to bankroll government in return for shares in key state assets had given them a controlling interest in Russia’s oil and gas. One of them, Vladimir Potanin, was now deputy prime minister, while Berezovsky was handling relations with Chechnya.
The honeymoon between government and the oligarchs proved short-lived, however. Early in 1997 Anatoly Chubais (the one economist of Yeltsin’s original team still in power, and effectively running the country) decided to end the preferential deals which they enjoyed in the ongoing privatization program. When Russia’s phone system came up for auction, Chubais tried to ensure there would be no insider trading. This led to all-out war, among the oligarchs, and among them and the government.
Meanwhile, Western finance was flooding into Moscow. Now that hyperinflation was over, the stock market was booming. But the results were not reaching beyond Moscow or trickling down to ordinary people. Bureaucrats were still holding back salaries for months and using the money for their own purposes. Some three-quarters of businesses in Russia were still being conducted by barter.
The financial crash that followed in August 1998 was avoidable. But the government and oligarchs were so preoccupied by their ongoing row that they did not heed the warning signs. Russia was spending more money than it made: taxes were not being collected, and the old habit of subsidizing Russian industry had continued. The government was financing its deficit by borrowing short-term bonds on the capital markets. Indeed, it was so deeply in debt that it was paying back more than it was borrowing. The solution was devaluation, but the Central Bank was set against that.
The oligarchs’ political meddling further weakened the government at a critical moment. They engineered the sacking of Chubais. Then, with an eye to controlling the choice of Yeltsin’s successor, Berezovsky instigated the removal of Yeltsin’s heir apparent, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. Yeltsin then asserted his independence and replaced him with Sergei Kiriyenko, an honest young banker. But Kiriyenko’s political weakness and inexperience made this a fatal choice.
Then came the crash. First, the West stopped lending Russia money. Next, oil prices fell. Finally, the Asian financial crisis caused foreign investors to draw back. With the Central Bank determined not to deflate, it was inevitable. The government had been in such a hurry to break up its command economy that it had not created the institutions needed to regulate the wild new market.
The financial crisis ruined those whose business was money—including the bankers among the oligarchs. It also destroyed those who had been borrowing. This included a large part of Russia’s struggling new middle class. Overall, 30 percent of small businesses folded. Living standards crashed by 40 percent.
But it made the fortunes of those, including oligarchs, who owned assets.
IN SEARCH OF THE RUSSIAN IDEA
All afternoon the train had been traveling through a forest of birches. It was mid-May, but the branches were still bare. I was on my way east to Siberia, in search of Natasha and Igor. Whether they would want to see me was another matter. Two years had passed since they left Saratov and Natasha had long ago stopped answering her friends’ letters. Anna could not forgive Natasha for turning her back on their friendship.
I must have dozed off. When I woke the light was beginning to fail, but still the forest went on. Mile after mile of wild cherry trees in bloom edged the wood like a trimming of lace. I also intended to track down Vera, the tiny woman who befriended me when I stepped off Benya’s boat. She had left home to join the prophet Vissarion somewhere remote in southern Siberia. Before the Revolution, the outlying parts of Russia harbored many such homegrown sects, as well as the Old Believers. Now this seemed to be happening again. Thousands of people seemed to have joined Vissarion’s sect, but it was under heavy attack in the press.
The birch forest had ended and the steppe stretched away to the horizon, flat and featureless. Back home in Britain, the very contours of the island’s landscape instilled a sense of beginnings and endings. Here the space just went on and on. The émigré philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev maintained that the essential quality of his people, their aspiration toward the infinite, echoed the great expanses of the steppe. Like Dostoevsky, he believed that when this spirituality, “the Russian idea,” was tainted by Western rationalism, the result was demonic. Berdyaev believed his people had been crushed by the energy it took to claim so much land. The damage I saw everywhere around me, the punishment that industrialization had visited on the land, the neglected state of everything that man built seemed to bear out his judgment.
Russia’s history also suggested that its people traded space for freedom. The bigger the country grew, the less free her people became. Serfdom came quite late on. Western Europe was releasing its peasants by the mid-seventeenth century. But that was when Russia’s great expansion east and south was taking place. Her peasants moved often, for the soil was poor and quickly exhausted. These movements felt threatening to the tsarist state, so it tied them down with serfdom. And communism kept them there.
Today it was different. Now it was poverty that held people in place. You would not have thought it if you looked at Moscow. Over the last five years the skyline of the gray, balding, dew-lapped Soviet city was transformed. Postmodern turrets, smoky glass cathedrals to capitalism, thrust their way through the concrete. It looked as if a team of makeup girls had done over the old buildings. On what once appeared to be featureless blocks Art Nouveau detail and tendrils of exuberant ironwork were now picked out. Churches were spruce, their onion domes gleaming blue and brown with spangled stars. Neoclassical façades were burnished in raspberry pink, ochre, and rust. As for Stalin’s skyscrapers, clever lighting added what looked like a hint of irony to their domineering style, by night at least.
Zurab Tsereteli’s kitsch statue of Peter the Great, ninety-six meters high, bestriding the Moscow River, left no doubt as to who was the role model for the new Russia. Thanks to the city’s wily Mayor Luzhkov, the transition from state communism to state capitalism appeared seamless. The pompous edifice of the Church of Christ the Savior, blown up by the Soviets, was rebuilt. Construction took five years, as opposed to forty-four originally. Luzhkov had cleansed the city of Chechen traders and deported the homeless from the city.
The train passed a man on crutches, walking slowly, swinging his dead leg. There had been no buildings for a long time. I watched, expecting to see a house, a village perhaps. Where had he come from? Where was he going?
In Moscow I asked around about Benya. No one had seen him. Someone said he had been kidnapped by the Kirghiz yet again. His friends seemed strangely unworried: he probably spread the rumor himself, they said, because he could not deliver the money he had promised to various artists. He had left a film unfinanced, and a cruise down the Volga that had to be canceled.
An ample, motherly woman in charge of our carriage brought me tea. The hopes with which I set out on my travels seemed grotesquely wishful now. The transition from communism was conforming to the pattern of Russian history established by Peter the Great. Each attempt to impose Western forms of development clapped on a veneer of modernity. It did not change the nature of power. Indeed, through modernization, it only threatened to make it uglier.
Authoritarianism was acquiring a new intellectual respectability, thanks to the Eurasianists. Strangely enough, it was my Westernizing friend Anna who first made me aware of them. When I last stayed with her, she was talking enthusiastically about Lev Gumilev, who was one of the more liberal. Son of the poet Anna Akhmatova (the honor earned him two stints in prison camp), he had acquired cult status since his death in 1992. Inspired by émigrés like Nicholas Berdyaev, the Eurasianists were searching for a Russian identity that did not look to Europe. Their starting point was the country’s physical geography, which was more Asian than European. Their ideas were prompted, like fascism, by the humiliation of a nation deeply imbued by a sense of its historic destiny. In their view liberal democracy, with its enfeebling relativism, its incontinent consumerism, had failed as an idea around which different cultures could unite. Russia could offer the world a finer model, spiritually strong, not sapped by individualism.
Gumilev had his own biogeographical theory: every ethnic group had its historical rise and fall, after which decline set in. But those charged with a sense of national mission could reverse this decline. The great changes of history in the northern hemisphere depended on charges of cosmic energy inspiring ethnic groups with passionarnost. The strength of this innate drive was what divided people untouched by greatness from a “superethnos,” like the Russians. It enabled the divided Slav tribes to come together to overthrow Mongol rule, and it could make Russia rise again today.
In Gumilev’s theory a decisive role was accorded to these passionari, the exceptional individuals who elected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. When I read this I understood why Misha and Tatiana so deeply disapproved of Anna’s crusade against Saratov’s corrupt officialdom. Despairing of political reform, unable to see a way forward for her country, my friend had cast herself as one of Gumilev’s passionari.
For all the romanticism of his engagement with business, Misha was a pragmatist. Given time, he believed that the activities of businessmen like him would bring about changes in Russia which would irrevocably alter the nature of power. He was confident that on the level of the individual, where the patterns of history are made and broken, people were already beginning to slough off their totalitarian conditioning. They were liberating themselves by learning how to work for themselves. I so wanted this to be true. I worried about Anna, though.
The train stopped at a small station. Walking down the train, I passed a woman selling hot pies: “Hot manty, bi-ri-shi!” Her five-beat call with its rat-a-tat ending was as distinctive as that of any thrush. On the platform a flurry of trading was under way. A deaf and dumb boy was doing brisk business in fluorescent red and orange drinks. A fat woman in a flowered dress and white kerchief was filling a passenger’s newspaper with potatoes. Where the platform ended the grass strip by the railway tracks was planted with rows of potatoes. For much of the rural population, potatoes were still the staple diet.
The train was due in at Novosibirsk at four o’clock in the morning. I twisted and turned on my bunk. Natasha and Igor did not have a telephone. By the time I heaved my bag off the train at Novosibirsk station, I was jumpy. What was I doing, on a wild goose chase across Russia in search of people who might have forgotten all about me? The station was bleak. The massive cube of a female guard with a megaphone stood on the platform in a cone of light. I settled among the shabby crowd in the waiting room to wait for morning. The hard seats had fixed arms. A man in a worn suit sat slumped over his bag. A boy was scrunched up in a fetal position. A girl with a mop of peroxide hair hung over the metal arm like a cloth doll.
I must have nodded off. I dreamed about Natasha: the new beginning she had longed for had happened. She was living in an improbable Palladian stone house. She welcomed me absently and walked out into the garden, where a three-legged tomcat was dipping its paw in an ornamental pond. Beyond, in a beech grove, she was embracing an impeccably dressed English gentleman. In the dream, there was no sign of Igor. It was possible that I would not find her there at all. She might have taken up her admirer’s invitation to join him in Canada.
I went out to the hall in search of coffee. The real poor, who could not afford the price of the waiting room, were out here. As I waited in line, a man who looked like a dried chili walked up to me: “Where is it?” His shiny blue eyes were rimmed with red. “We had order, Soviet order.” The man’s words were slightly slurred. “We were great. Where’s it gone?” He looked at me reproachfully, as though I had taken it.
He was off to the Tyumen oil wells for another month’s work. “It’s a bag of shit, everything smells of oil … But there’s this old place I go past every day—they say it’s full of babas praying—wazzit called?”
“Nunnery, that’s it. Weird idea—these babas, all locked in together, praying … But it makes me feel better …”
His journey would take a day. It was the only available work since Novosibirsk’s factories, which were largely military, closed.
“War’s the only way out,” the pickled man confided, tears in his eyes. “ ’S the one thing we know how to make.”
“Against whom?” I inquired.
“My pal’s a lathe operator—he’ll make us all guns—”
“But who are you going to fight?” I insisted. He focused on the question slowly.
“We’ll start with the government, I’ll cut Yeltsin’s throat myself. Lining their pockets, squeezing the money out of us like blood—it’s a bear pit. They’ll fight it out, fight for power till there’s only one left. Just let me get my mitts on ’em—I’ll kill the lot. They’ve sold great Russia for a bag of gold! It’ll never recover! Smashed. There’s no putting it together again.” He paused. “Bloody woman! Got to keep a tight rein!” He made a fist. “A woman’s got to obey a man! She should obey me. They’re all the same, good for nothing but fucking and flogging.”
I kept quiet, with an effort. “Don’t look at me like that. Your eyes—they go right through me. Have I said something wrong? Our women, I’m talking about our women … well, maybe not all our women. Come on, I didn’t mean it.” Pathetic now: “I’m going to die soon. I’m only in my forties. It’s been foretold.”
“Cheer up, it’s up to you.”
“No, it’s been foretold—I’ve got five more years.”
I headed back to the waiting room, anxieties blown away by this exchange. I chose to be here, after all. The chili man was probably right about his death, too. Life expectancy for men had fallen sharply. More men had died prematurely in the last few years than were lost on all sides in the Chechen war. Drink, drugs, and suicide were the immediate causes. But it was despair that was really killing them.
THE PRODIGAL RETURNS
I reached Natasha’s sister on the phone in Novosibirsk before she left for work. Yes, she assured me, Natasha and Igor were there, and still living together, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. When I asked how they were she sounded guarded. As for finding it on my own, that would be impossible, she said flatly: she would take me out there after work.
Memory had softened the brutish scale of the Siberian capital. The massy Soviet blocks and bullying scale of its streets and squares reflected an ideology which had little place in it for the individual. These undulating reaches of asphalt were intended for parades of military strength. In Lenin Square a huge statue of workers wielding weapons and tools was still striding into its radiant future. But gusts of wind were blinding them with wild cherry blossom.
The grim cityscape was softened by the sight of young girls wearing the latest fashion, polka-dot platform heels. The girls trod the wavy asphalt tentatively, like escaped giraffes. People were buying bananas and eating them there and then on the street, as if to make up for years of lost fruit.
Natasha’s sister was right. I would never have found the couple’s flat without her. They were living a long way away, in an old industrial district built by German prisoners of war and deported Russian Germans. Walking from the tram, we passed rows of arms factories. When the Wehrmacht invaded, the Soviets had been utterly unprepared for war. They were dismantling arms factories only just ahead of the advancing armies, hastily reerecting them here. Now those buildings stood derelict, windows broken. Two men were dragging equipment out of one of them.
My friends were living in two rooms on one of the elegantly proportioned, intimate courtyards in the workers’ suburb adjoining these factories. Designed in the Stalinist neoclassical style, all ochre and white, were palaces of culture, playgrounds, and bakeries. Crumbling now, lost in thickets of lilac and straggling birch, it was an elegy to that failed attempt to build a workers’ paradise on earth.
Natasha and Igor greeted me as if it was perfectly normal for me to turn up unannounced after two years. The contrast between them was shocking. Natasha looked wretched, thin and pale. But Igor was transformed. The discontent which had marred his handsome mustachioed face was gone. His dark eyes had lost that bloodhound droop. He looked plump and prosperous, though this was clearly not true. But he was working. Now that he had started, he did not seem to want to do anything else. Later, when Natasha and I went to bed in the couple’s double bed, we left Igor writing a business plan for some company. When we got up in the morning, he was still at his desk. After years of treading water in Marx, he was now in love with work.
The couple were living austerely. Their three rooms were furnished with only an iron bedstead, a desk, two chairs, and a fridge. Here and there laths were exposed where the plaster had fallen away. Igor’s computer was their only possession of value. I went out and bought armfuls of food to celebrate our reunion.
When they started to tell me how things were I understood why Natasha had not been in touch with Anna and Tatiana. By the time they reached Novosibirsk, Natasha’s father was ill with cancer of the throat. He greeted his prodigal daughter affectionately. But he refused to help her. He had his own troubles, and clearly felt that she had received enough help already. “I don’t blame Father—he couldn’t trust me. I’ve behaved too wildly,” Natasha said bravely. But she had been counting on his help, I knew.
That first Siberian winter they found a room in some cellar, a refuge for winos and prostitutes. There was nowhere to cook, and nowhere to wash but in the street. One day they returned to find their front door stolen. From then onward they defied the temperatures of minus twenty degrees by wearing all their clothes at the same time. They could not find work. They spent their time reading books on marketing, requalifying themselves for this new world.
Natasha visited her old gang, the golden boys of her school days, to ask for help. Their fortunes mirrored that of the country. Ivan, who proposed that she join him in Canada, was back. “He did nothing but complain about the Canadians and their materialism!” Through his words, she heard the lament of a man who, when faced by the confident, bright surfaces of North American culture, had been undermined by a deep sense of inadequacy.
Another friend had also emigrated to the New World. Ilya had done well in Washington, working as a consultant. But he was back home, too, health shattered, after developing a brain tumor. He spent all his dollar savings on an operation to save his life.
With each visit her hopes faded. Vasily had become a civil servant, an important figure in the power hierachy of Novosibirsk. Solemnly he advised Natasha that if she wanted to earn good money she should go to the oil wells of Tyumen, live in a barracks, and turn her hand to manual labor. The cleverest of the group, Mikhail, an ex-physicist, was designing furniture for prison workshops.
The worst fates, the ones that broke her heart, were reserved for the two most gifted young men of her privileged gang. Anatoly married a woman so eaten up by greed that for love of her he had taken the shortcut to wealth and joined one of the city’s criminal gangs. He was the charming, quietly spoken extortionist in the well-cut suit whose task it was to visit factory directors for a cup of tea and deliver the ultimatum: hand over your profits or else.
Natasha’s closest friend, Yury, fell victim to just such a gang. He was that rarity, a successful businessman doing his best to be honest. Two men on a motorbike, hired killers, gunned him down with a submachine gun in broad daylight after he refused to bow to blackmail.
Statistically, the fates of these two were not so surprising. According to the official estimate of Russia’s chief procurator, half the country’s economy was in the hands of organized crime by now.
After each visit, Natasha would return to the cellar and take out her bitterness on Igor. Mostly, he took it patiently. He loved her dearly and understood what she was going through. But one day the torrent of blame became too much and something snapped. He hit her. It was not a hard blow, by her own admission, but it struck her full on the ear.
She lay in hospital for a long time. Her eardrum appeared to be broken; she was badly bruised and suffering from concussion. She could not talk properly and the rushing in her ears drowned out every other noise. She lost so much weight that she could barely lie down because her bones stuck into her. She promised herself that if she ever recovered she would leave Igor.
Only when the doctors gave up on her did she take herself in hand. She started asking around about doctors. There was only one who could help, they said. He was a brilliant man who had studied in China. But he took only private patients, and they paid him fairy-tale sums.
Using her last strength, Natasha pushed past all the people whose job it was to protect him, into the doctor’s office. His chilly gaze froze her. “If you ever wondered whether there was a God, help me now,” she lisped, this wisp of a woman who could no longer even talk properly. He accepted her as a patient, on one condition: she had to obey his every instruction. After the third session, the rushing sound in her ears began to die down. “It wasn’t your eardrum that was broken,” he told her, “it was your psyche.”
Jogging up and down the hospital steps, forcing herself to eat, Natasha began to mend. “I realized I was crazy to think of leaving Igor. Who for? My ‘golden boys’? Igor was worth a dozen of them.” She returned to the cellar to find Igor living off tins of cat food. But he had landed himself a job—as a lavatory attendant. It was there that he made his first business contact, with the director of a building firm. Igor convinced the man to let him do the marketing.
Natasha and Igor both ended up working for the man he met in the public lavatory. He ran a fine company, building blocks of flats for ex–army officers, using their redundancy money for capital. It did well, in fact too well, for it attracted the attention of a man called Kibirev, “Novosibirsk’s largest rat of all,” as Natasha put it. Kibirev took over the building firm and ousted its director. He stole its capital and poured it into the election campaign which General Lebed was mounting to oust Yeltsin from the presidency.
Natasha and Igor were admirers of the popular General Lebed, who had negotiated the end of the Chechen war. But from the vantage point of the asset-stripped company, they watched in horror as sinister power blocs lined up behind the general’s election campaign. They knew that they had to leave the company. But winter was coming on and the prospect of living among the winos again was more than they could bear. Despising themselves, they kept on working for Kibirev.
There came a day when they could take it no longer. Natasha staged a spectacular public row. She vented her contempt on Kibirev and taunted him with her freedom, the freedom of those who have nothing left to lose. After that, things became hard. But by then they were at least beginning to understand something about business.
BUILDING HEAVEN OR HELL
Natasha’s father was holding a birthday party. I had heard a lot about him over the years: the charmer, the great builder, member of Novosibirsk’s old Party elite. She never mentioned her mother, and something about her silence deterred questions. It was her father who raised her, and she spoke of him with love and pride. She was clearly his darling. But I still had no idea why she fled from him, and from all the privileges that came with that background. In Russia, it was far riskier to throw away such advantages than in the West. What made her leave her first happy marriage, to rush hither and thither across Russia, from one husband to the next, only to end up back home in a basement with winos and dropouts?
Natasha’s father and stepmother lived in a flat in the city center. We traveled in on the tram. Despite their penury, Natasha and Igor were smartly dressed in clothes from a shop which imported secondhand clothes from the West.
The front door was opened by a vivacious, nut-brown man with a vigorous mane of curls, the spitting image of his daughter. Gallantly, he kissed my hand. The flat was light and airy, but perfectly modest. Had Natasha’s father’s savings gone in the inflation of those first postcommunist years, I wondered? Or was the opulence of Natasha’s childhood, which she recalled so vividly, only relative?
Despite the cancer that had struck his vocal cords, her father seated me beside him and regaled me through the long summer evening with whispered jokes and stories. But his efforts and his gallantry could not disguise the sadness which hung over the occasion. His much younger wife, a broad-hipped doll with a round, painted face, produced a sumptuous birthday meal. She hardly spoke all evening, but her face wore a martyred smile. “What about me?” it seemed to say. Even as she netted her big boss, he had turned into a sick old man.
Natasha fussed around her father and me like a nanny. She was nervous, and it was no wonder. For while we were changing for the party she dropped a bomb into our conversation: her father had spent his life building those arms factories which dominated the city’s skyline. “One made nuclear weapons,” she said in a horrified whisper, holding my gaze in the miniature mirror in which she was making up her eyes.
“My sister and I grew up knowing nothing—we thought he just built houses.” In fact, of course, most of the city’s economy, and 40 percent of the Soviet empire’s, was military. “It wasn’t Papa who told me, but Sasha.” He was her first husband. “He didn’t want to. He knew what it would do to me—I bullied him into it.” She turned around and looked at me directly. “I adored Papa so much. He’d been my idol—I felt betrayed. I couldn’t forgive him. He belonged to that world—he knew all about it and he never told us, never prepared us. How I used to laugh when people used to talk about psychotronic weapons! I thought it was pure paranoia! They counted on that, on us thinking it was too far-fetched! But when I asked him about them recently, he said he ‘knew the factories well’!” Before I could ask her any more, Igor interrupted us, hurrying us off to the party. In the tram coming in Natasha would not look at me, but stood gazing out of the window, frighteningly pale and still.
Natasha’s anxiety rubbed off on her father. Even now it was clear how close the two were. When everyone else was in the kitchen fetching food, he whispered hoarsely in my ear, out of the blue, as if he knew what his daughter had been telling me: “It wasn’t right what we did.” At that moment Natasha walked in from the kitchen bearing a steaming plate of pilau. “You were only the builder—it wasn’t your fault!” she protested, rushing to his defense. “Well, what’s done is done,” sighed the old man, reaching up to the top shelf of the cupboard for his best bottle of Armenian brandy. “Let’s be grateful for small mercies—the Armenians still love us.” He smiled bravely, filling my glass.
As we sat back, sated with delicious pilau, the old man turned to me: “I don’t believe in God—I won’t have that,” he rasped in the shell of my ear so that no one else would hear. Even behind these words I heard an uncertainty: had he been wrong about that, too? “Let’s drink to peace,” said the old cold warrior.
• • •
Natasha’s confession about her father had been prompted by her seeing the book I had been lent that morning. It was about psychotronic weapons. I had not heard the term before.
Apparently, they inflicted damage at long distance. They could implant thoughts in people’s minds without their knowing it. Oh dear, I thought on hearing this, here we go, back into that unmapped territory, among the monsters. Back home, I would have laughed. But the man who pressed the book on me, a scientist, insisted that these were no fabulous monsters. There was a reason why they did not appear on my mapped world, he was saying: the secret had been too well guarded by governments. It was the dark side of the science he worked in.
Natasha was nobody’s fool. She had been like a cat on a stove since seeing that book. Her reaction was what made me really want to know more. When we got back home from the party and she was asleep, I started reading the book.
Psychotronic weapons were no futurologist’s idea, I read. They already existed; they were capable of destroying command systems at long distance. The information they transmitted could kill troops, and potentially whole populations. They worked by manipulating the electromagnetic force fields around living organisms …
I looked at the sleeping Natasha. Was it possible that her beloved father, builder of the arms factories, had built a factory for psychotronic weapons? Was that it, the shock that had destabilized her life, sent her spinning around Russia pursued by furies, ridding herself of the antiques, the crystal, all the finery bought with her father’s money?
TOUCHING THE COSMOS
It was on a hunch that I had rung up Professor Kaznacheev’s laboratory. Having heard that he worked with shamans, and was a leading figure in an alternative tradition of Russian science, it seemed possible that he might be able to shed some light on the mysterious behavior of the community in Zarafshan.
So that morning I had made my way up to Akademgorod, the privileged settlement built for Soviet scientists on the wooded hills above the grime of Novosibirsk. The professor’s laboratory was housed in a prestigious building, the headquarters of the Soviet Siberian Academy of Scientists. It was a tall tower block set in a forest of birch trees. The foyer was clad in marble, and had a fountain in it, but the tiles were coming loose and the fountain was long dry. Upstairs, floor after floor of long corridors connected the laboratories and offices. But the doors were closed. Somewhere in the building, a window was banging. The place seemed abandoned.
One of the doors in this rabbit warren carried the intriguing title International Institute of Cosmic Anthropo-ecology. I knocked on it. Kaznacheev’s deputy gave me a guarded welcome, sat me down, and talked. He talked not about science, but about philosophy.
The branch of science they were pursuing belonged to a different tradition from that of the West, he explained. It was the result of a uniquely Russian conjunction of scientific thinking and religious philosophy which went back to the nineteenth century. These philosphers disagreed with the way the Enlightenment had displaced God from the center of the intellectual world. They believed that the West’s unswerving attachment to rationalism had led Western philosophy to be obsessed with a false set of problems, the need to demonstrate the existence of external reality. What mattered, of course, was the relationship between people. Western philosophy had lost sight of this self-evident truth.
• • •
I was aware that there had been a great revival of interest in Russia’s religious thinkers since the fall of communism. Their work had been banned in the Soviet Union. But the professor’s assistant was saying that scientists who belonged within that tradition had continued practicing right through the Soviet period.
It was when the professor’s assistant started talking about the nineteenth-century philosopher Nikolai Fedorov that the gap between the two worlds yawned again. I knew about him. A great librarian, the illegitimate son of a prince, he lived in one room, wore the same clothes all year round, and gave his salary away to the poor. Fedorov fascinated his contemporaries, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—The Brothers Karamazov was said to have been inspired by his ideas. But for me he was just an amusing footnote in the history of Russian philosophy. Deeply Christian, he took the notion of “the brotherhood of man” so literally that he proposed mankind stop procreating and study how to resurrect the dead. He believed it was man’s task to orchestrate nature and the cosmos in order to create paradise on earth.
Now here was the professor’s assistant, telling me that Fedorov’s grand vision had captured the imagination of a whole tradition of Russia’s natural scientists. The philosopher had dreamed about the colonization of space generations before anyone else. That was Russia’s destiny. That was where man’s path to immortality lay. Fedorov taught the man they call the father of Russia’s space program, the rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. And through this hero of Soviet science the philosopher’s mystical and messianic view of space passed into popular consciousness in the Soviet period. Tsiolkovsky also wrote science fiction, and in his stories he developed many of Fedorov’s ideas about the colonization of space. Tsiolkovsky shared his mentor’s belief that the universe was constantly evolving and full of intelligent life. He maintained that man needed to develop his telepathic abilities in order to open up the secrets of the universe.
Among the scientists who shared aspects of this resistance to the Western scientific approach was the celebrated earth scientist Vladimir Vernadsky, said the professor’s assistant. While Western earth scientists tended to study separate elements of the natural world, what mattered most was their interrelationship, Vernadsky maintained. Long before James Lovelock’s “Gaia,” Vernadsky not only coined the word “biosphere” to describe the unified view of nature and the cosmos toward which he believed the natural sciences should aspire, he also built on Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of a “noosphere,” where man’s thinking became a force that interacted with the “biosphere,” changing its chemical structure.
Since the fall of communism such concepts had become part of the wider currency of intellectual and spiritual thinking in Russia. Its adherents, who called themselves Cosmists, maintained that this “noosphere” was growing more important all the time, particularly thanks to the Internet. Professor Kaznacheev was one of the pillars of Cosmist thought.
Having sketched out this grand framework, the professor’s assistant proffered an invitation which I later realized was a test, a way of determining whether I should be allowed to meet the professor. His laboratory contained a device they had developed that allowed ordinary people like me to understand what it meant to be in touch with the cosmos. The device reduced the magnetic field which covers the earth’s surface, he explained. By so doing it allowed ordinary people to share the experience of shamans and psychics. Would I like to try it out?
Having come this far, I was hardly going to refuse. I followed him down flights of stairs, to a damp room in the basement guarded with triple locks. There, he invited me to crawl inside a fur-lined sleeping bag in a huge metal cylinder.
What happened next takes me to the very edge of the sayable. After lying in the dark for a while, my heart started leaping about like a cricket in a box. Then everything went calm and the images began. A dark column seemed to rise out of my forehead. I found myself standing in a deep, dark canyon. This canyon came and went, alternating with a spiral. When that faded away, a brightly colored fairground carousel appeared. There were people riding the whirling wooden trains, cars, and animals. It was a merry scene, at least to start with. But even as I watched, something started going wrong. The movement of the carousel became chaotic, alarming. The painted wooden animals and engines were slipping. The center was not holding; it was falling apart.
Then this sequence faded and I found myself back at the bottom of that great dark spiral, which in turn evolved back into a crevasse. Black rocks rose up on either side and there was light streaming down on me. I basked in that light. This, this I wanted never to end. But eventually this image faded, too. I lay not knowing where my body finished and the world outside began. Everything around me seemed to be spun out of light. The rhythm of my breathing seemed to have changed. It was as if I was learning to breathe for the first time, learning to support this lightness of being through the way I breathed.
I climbed out of the cylinder reluctantly. When I described this magical experience to the professor’s assistant he seemed delighted. He not only asked me if I would like to meet the professor, he even offered me a lift back to Novosibirsk in the Institute’s chauffeur-driven black Volga. He also lent me that book about psychotronic weapons.
The prospect of trying to explain any of this to Natasha and Igor was more than I could face. I asked the driver to leave me at the city’s picture gallery. There, I sat among the pictures for a long time, trying to hold on to this luminous void, which seemed so vivid with energy and meaning. Only once had I experienced anything similar. Not long ago, after falling seriously ill on a skiing holiday in the Alps, I floated up and soared over the mountains, leaving my body behind on the bed in our chalet. Looking down on the places we had skied that day, I surveyed the distant valley below, with its neat arrangement of toy houses, fields, and roads. It seemed as if I were a particle of light, traveling through the air, free even to pass through mountains. It was enough for me to think of a place to find myself there. On my favorite Dorset hillside I planed the air currents, imitating the buzzards I had watched there over the years. I had come back from that experience reluctantly.
All afternoon I stayed in the gallery. When I returned to Natasha and Igor’s I said nothing about my day, and tried to hide that book. But Natasha, noticing my furtiveness, became inquisitive.
RIDING TWO REALITIES
The following morning I tiptoed out of the flat while Natasha and Igor were still asleep and waited outside a gutted arms factory for the Institute of Cosmic Anthropo-ecology’s black Volga to pick me up.
I was caught in the Slavic version of some Whitehall farce. It was not alarms and assignations I was dodging between, but different realities. On the one hand, there were Natasha and Igor, struggling out of the lower depths of Natasha’s self-imposed purgatory. On the other, there was the magic cylinder and this parallel reality up the hill in Akademgorod. Where Natasha’s father, the builder, fitted into this farce I dreaded to think.
We drove up out of the stacks and grime to the professor’s house in Akademgorod. A pretty wooden dacha, it stood in a clearing surrounded by pines. The garden was a sheet of white and blue—drifts of flowering lilies of the valley and clouds of brunnera. The scent of lilies was heavy on the air. It was sunny, and as we drove up the professor was standing by his front door, hand in hand with his little daughter. His face was rugged and his white hair stood up in a tuft in front. He stood with his feet well apart, as if braced for shocks.
We settled in his study on the top floor, looking out over the tall trees. I apologized for being scientifically illiterate. “Oh, don’t worry! I much prefer talking to writers and other artists from the West—your scientists are so conditioned by their tradition that they think I’m talking rubbish.” Had it not been for my experience in the cylinder, I would have thought so, too.
“My research belongs to a very Russian tradition which goes back to philosophers like Khomyakov, Fedorov, and Soloviev,” he said, referring to leading nineteenth-century Slavophiles. “What they all had in common was that they refused to believe you had to choose between religion and science—theirs was a God-centered universe. A whole line of natural scientists in Russia have maintained that tradition—men like Vernadsky and Tsiolkovsky. We call it the cosmos, they called it ‘the divine’—they’re much the same.”
Then he smiled: “I gather you had a good time in the hypomagnetic chamber? What you experienced is fairly typical. The chamber allows people to undergo the experience of shamans. To communicate with the cosmos. Let me explain …” The professor’s intellectual mentor, he went on, was a brilliant astrophysicist called Nikolai Kozyrev, whose career was destroyed when he was sent to the Gulag. From the sky over his prison camp Kozyrev observed that some of the stars seemed to be interacting with one another. It seemed to him that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics were not sufficient to explain what was going on. The universe seemed to be communicating with itself. Kozyrev proposed that there was a third force at work, a carrier of information. He called it “time-energy.” Kozyrev concluded that the universe was a single, conscious system within which living matter was constantly exchanging information on every level from cells to stars.
“That’s where my own research as a biologist began,” the professor went on. “I designed a series of experiments to find out whether, at the cellular level, it was possible to prove Kozyrev’s theory. I set out to try to isolate this dimension which, if it existed, was operating beyond the biochemical, and the cybernetic, too. Could cells communicate information to one another holographically, as Kozyrev was suggesting? I found that they could—and I repeated these findings in more than three hundred experiments. I found that one group of cells could transmit a virus, a toxin, or radiation to other healthy cells of the same type. They could do this over distance, in conditions where this could not have happened through infection or contamination. I also found that healthy cells could ‘protect’ themselves from long-distance penetration from damaged cells by means of a field immune system.”
The professor proceeded to tease out the implications of Kozyrev’s proposition. If all matter was constantly exchanging information, how about man? Why did he seem unable to do this? Or at least why was this capability limited to a few rare individuals, whom we called shamans? He found that at places on the earth’s surface where the electromagnetic field which covers the earth was at its thinnest, people’s ability to communicate at long distance was much stronger. Indeed, sacred sites all over the world were always located in such places. That was why civilizations always congregated in sacred spaces, he concluded: they went there to reinforce their direct contact with the cosmos. His theory was that consciousness had originally been communicated to proto-man from the cosmos. The hypomagnetic cylinder reproduced conditions similar to those found at these sacred sites.
In the course of our evolution, Kaznacheev explained, this original capacity of ours for communication with the divine became overlaid by the development of speech and reasoning skills. But it surfaced still in exceptionally gifted individuals, he said, and in times of crisis, too. “What do you mean by that?” I asked, thinking of Zarafshan. “Well, we found that ordinary people, often whole communities, rediscovered that capacity in times of emergency. In the last few years we’ve noticed it happening quite a lot.
“Do you understand what I am telling you?” the professor said, suddenly excited. “It’s really important! We probably understand less than one percent of what there is to know about living matter on the planet. Ninety-five percent of what we know is about inert, nonliving matter—chemistry and genetics. The irony is that just as all these things, like information technology, transport, and migration, are bringing our world together, we’re facing an intellectual black hole, a crisis in the state of knowledge!
“If we’re going to survive the crisis, we’ve got to understand that we’re part of a living cosmos, one informed by a higher consciousness. Our planet’s evolving—it’s facing a crucial stage of transformation—one which is only going to come about through mankind’s positive intervention.”
The professor’s mood darkened, and he became visibly upset. “The role of ‘time-energy’ in this transformation is crucial. It’s a power that can be used for good or ill. That’s what I need to talk to you about …” Russia had been in the forefront of research into psychotronic weapons, he explained. But ever since Soviet funding had dried up, this information had been in danger of falling into the wrong hands. The Americans had invited him over, rolled out the red carpet for him, he said darkly. But it soon became clear that it was the military potential of his research that interested them. He refused the funding.
The money was all in the West now, he went on. But people in the West were so far away from understanding such matters that they could not even take the prospect of psychic weapons seriously. The West’s military was pursuing its own researches, of course, but so successful were they in keeping it secret that few people had any idea how close they were to being able to exploit its full “diabolical potential.” The dangers of nuclear power paled by comparison, he hinted ominously.
In Russia, some of his former colleagues in this field had solved their financial problems by selling their knowledge, and not just for military purposes. The technology also had enormous therapeutic and healing potential. Every day people came from all over Russia to ask for his help. He was happy to give it, he said, but he would not accept money: to do so was to start on a slippery slope, to make himself vulnerable to all sorts of pressures. The question he had to ask me was this: did I know of any safe sources of funding in the West?
This time I refused a lift and traveled back down the hill to Novosibirsk on one bus after another to get back to Natasha and Igor’s. I needed time to think. I liked the professor. He was an endearing figure. With his tanned face and strong, stocky figure, he looked less like a scientist than like an explorer from another, more innocent age. I had enjoyed hearing him talk about his intelligent universe. I had listened as if to a bedtime story, happily, uncritically.
But when I realized why he was talking to me so urgently I became worried. He was in trouble. He needed funding, and he really hoped I would be able to secure it for him in the West. But how? I tried to imagine how it would be if I went home, rang up my few rich friends, and asked them if they would like to invest in a device which would connect them with the divine.
The professor was not asking me to understand, but to make a leap of faith. Had I lived in Russia (and not the Russia of Moscow and Petersburg, but this other Russia) I might have been able to. But I belonged in a different reality, as did Natasha and Igor. It was that problem of the golden woman again. As long as I was with the professor I almost believed that there was a golden woman hidden in the forests of Russia. But by the time I got back to London, she would have vanished, become the stuff of legend again.
Speaking Russian was one thing. Reaching across this gap between the two cultures—that I did not know how to do.
TICKET TO THE END OF THE EARTH
This morning I finally heard from Vera. As soon as I reached Novosibirsk, I sent her a telegram. I had not rated my chances of being invited highly, as Vissarion’s community was notoriously secretive. But a week later I received a message, via Natasha’s sister, that I was welcome.
Igor was working quietly at his computer. Natasha was visiting a friend in hospital. I took out a map of southern Siberia and considered the journey. First, I would fly to Abakan, a town on the River Yenisei south of Krasnoyarsk. Kuragino, where Vera was living, was the very last place marked on the map east of Abakan. I would have to travel on by a combination of bus and train. Beyond Kuragino the map showed no towns or roads, nothing but the wilderness of the Sayan Mountains.
Natasha had been begging me not to go. It was dangerous, she said. At first, I took her warnings seriously. After all, she was born and bred in Siberia. But when I pressed her, I could get nothing sensible out of her. “It’s just—it’s the end of the earth. Daddy says that there’ll be nothing but tractors out there! Stay here instead,” she wheedled. In Marx she had been a proud woman and guarded. Now she was clinging and slightly pathetic. The last thing I needed was Natasha’s anxiety.
Another friend had just shown me an article about Vissarion’s community in a national newspaper. It was an interview with a Petersburg woman who murdered her husband to escape from the community. She said her husband had fallen under Vissarion’s spell after losing his job; that her only hope of keeping the family together lay in following him. Things had gone wrong from the start. The woman’s teenage son had taken one look at the community and gone back home. She had not been able to stand the hard labor and the brainwashing. Why she had not just left was unclear. Instead, with money from the sale of their Petersburg flat, she hired two local men to kill her husband. There was a photograph of the murderer, looking young and vulnerable. I did not know whether to trust the story. It might be a pack of lies, but it was unsettling.
When I first met Vera in Saratov, the newspapers were sympathetic to Vissarion. But latterly, the coverage had turned nasty. The idea that Russians should be free to choose their form of belief was deeply alien. Until the Revolution, Russian nationality and Orthodoxy were considered synonymous. Now the Church was trying to reclaim that monopoly. Press reports usually bracketed Vissarion’s cult together with one called the Great White Brotherhood. In the early nineties, the Brotherhood’s undernourished, white-clad teenage converts were a common sight on the streets of Russia’s cities, importuning passersby. Its fate was comical and tragic. Its “living god,” an ex–Komsomol girl who called herself Maria Devi Christos, was rash enough to predict that the world was going to end on November 24, 1993. When it dawned, ten thousand of Devi’s stripling devotees converged on the sect’s headquarters in Kiev, causing mayhem in the city. Devi and her Svengali were imprisoned.
When Natasha arrived home she looked at Kuragino on the map. “No, you absolutely can’t go—you’d be mad! The ticks are breeding! It’s really dangerous! They’re hungry for blood! I wouldn’t go if you paid me!” The friend she had been visiting had come back from holiday in the Altai with a suspected tick bite. He was waiting to hear if it was infected.
“I’ll be fine,” I reassured her. But her news worried me. I had forgotten about the Siberian tick. Over the last few decades an encephalitic virus was spreading through the tick population in Siberia. One bite from an infected tick could be fatal, they said. Every year, hundreds of people were paralyzed and reduced to idiocy. For much of the year the ticks did not bite much, but at breeding time they were dangerous. Briskly, I reminded myself that Vera was the most impractical person I knew. If she could keep out of the way of the tick, so could I.
All the same, by the time I went to buy my ticket to Abakan for the journey next day, I was rattled. Novosibirsk’s airport for local flights was a grand neo-Stalinist building with outstretched wings and a classical portico. The May breeze blew a drift of white cherry blossom across the deserted asphalt. In Soviet days it might have been a hub of activity, but now flights were few and far between. The ticket office in the marble hallway was empty, and my appeals for help echoed round and round. Finally a young woman of enormous girth emerged from a back room. “Come back on Monday!” she said, taking one look at my passport and shaking her frizzy head at me.
“Why not now?”
“It’s impossible.” This was the old Soviet answer. Usually, it meant “I’m in the middle of lunch.”
“I can’t wait—I’ve been told that there are only two seats left.” This was actually true.
Then I realized what the problem was: she had never issued a ticket to a foreigner before. So I tried charm. It took her half an hour to make out the ticket. When she handed it over triumphantly I saw it was made out in the name of Mrs. Smith. “But that’s not my name,” I observed mildly. The pleats of white lard around the young woman’s neck suffused with pink. “The form is correctly filled out!” she barked. I took a look at the dummy form from which she had been copying. The name on it was Mrs. Smith. Patiently, I explained the problem. “Don’t worry,” she said, trying to sound in control. “I’ll be on duty. I’ll get you through.” “But what about my return journey? How am I going to explain that I have a ticket belonging to Mrs. Smith?”
There was a long pause. I watched her struggling to come to terms with a world in which foreign women were not going to stand for being called Mrs. Smith. In the end, she wrote me another ticket. It had taken an hour, but we both emerged triumphant. I had my ticket for tomorrow’s flight. She had crossed her Rubicon into the new Russia.
What is more, the whole transaction was so funny that I had forgotten to be anxious.
THE RUSSIAN ORESTES
When Natasha told me how her father had made his living I thought yes, this was the source of her distress. But there was more to it than that, as I found when I returned to the flat from buying my ticket. Igor opened the front door a crack and peered out suspiciously. “You! Natasha said you wouldn’t be back for a week!”
Natasha had forgotten I was not leaving until the next day. This confusion was new, and alarming. While Igor sat working, she would be sitting around in a distracted state, chain smoking. Now she was fast asleep in the bedroom, breathing strangely. Igor admitted that once she thought I had gone she took four sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of brandy. She had been feeling unwell, he said.
That was how I discovered about Natasha’s drinking. All that time in Marx she was drinking secretly, unbeknown even to Igor, who thought that she had given up. So that was what used to keep her out of the house all day on Engels Street. No wonder I found her so unfathomable. She really was a person in hiding.
Late that night, when she finally woke up, Natasha seemed almost relieved that her secret was out. While Igor kept working at his computer, she sat on the floor, pale and intent, her little-girl act forgotten, stroking her pregnant cat, telling me about her mother. A beautiful woman, she committed suicide when Natasha was eighteen. “She’s the forbidden subject in our family. But when I came back to Novosibirsk I wanted to know about her—to lay the past to rest. So I went around to see old family friends. What they said was terrible. “She was the curse of your father’s life,” they told me, “a horrible wife and a dreadful mother.” I’d blanked her out—couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Then I found some photos in Papa’s flat—I was shocked to find how beautiful she was. She’d made our childhood into hell—one long series of rows, threats, and ultimatums. She was convinced she was too good for my father and for the world she lived in. My father put up with it all, covered up for her. He felt we needed a mother—that even a mother like that was better than none at all.
“My sister had this lovely friendship with a boy of the ‘wrong type.’ Ma was convinced he was going to take her to some horrible cellar and rape her. She forbade my sister to see him. Then one day she saw them together in the street. That was it—she came home and made this ghastly scene—lying on the floor, banging her head. I was terribly rude to her. I couldn’t stand her. Papa said, ‘You mustn’t be rude to your mother!’ He smashed his fist down on this glass table and broke it to bits.
“After that, Papa and I left. We looked for my sister everywhere, but she’d run away. Papa told my mother we were leaving. He said she could have the flat and everything in it, but we weren’t coming back. I remember praying for her death.” There was a long pause. “A week later she killed herself. I remember the tremendous sense of relief. But I knew I’d done it.”
So that was what was festering inside Natasha. She had killed her mother. Beside this, the discovery that her father had built arms factories paled. This was the guilt that pursued her like the furies, right across Russia. Even in her dreams her mother still followed her, Natasha confessed, beautiful and hateful, promising never to let her go.
Next day, Natasha came to see me off at the neoclassical airport. We had an hour to wait. We sat on a bench. The sun was shining and a brisk wind blew gusts of white blossom across the ravaged tarmac. The drivers were asleep in their cars. After last night’s confession, Natasha was helpless and clinging. She was also coughing and had a temperature. I hated leaving her in this helpless state. I urged her to give up smoking, just for the week.
“Promise you’ll do it.” I wanted more than that, of course. I wanted to jolt her into facing the trauma of her mother’s suicide, which still seemed as fresh after twenty years as if it were yesterday.
“I can’t,” simpered Natasha. She had told me that after her mother’s suicide, her father behaved as though nothing had happened. I found that extraordinary. But perhaps he had no choice, belonging as he did to the city’s Party elite? Part of the rationale for the state-controlled terror of the thirties was to shock people out of their private lives, so that the New Soviet Men and Women could advance into their radiant collectivized future.
“Come on—promise,” I said, referring to the smoking.
“What’s the point?”
“What’s the point of my working on myself? I’ll become fat and healthy, full of energy, but what’s the point of that? I don’t believe in God—I can’t think of any good reasons for going on living. You tell me why!”
“Why should I? Right now you wouldn’t recognize a good reason if I gave you one.”
“You’re horrid.” Natasha was simpering again.
“And you’re a coward,” I retorted. “Once you’ve faced your past you won’t need me to tell you. You think you’re clever, but you’re just a bloody fool.”
“You’re a sort of anti-Mephistopheles—”
“You think a bottle of brandy is some kind of answer.”
“Don’t be beastly—it doesn’t suit you—”
“Don’t simper—it doesn’t suit you. You’re a strong woman—act like one.”
“You’re after my soul!”
“Rubbish. Give up smoking—just for a week.”
As the little plane took off, Natasha stood on the asphalt waving. I hated the hectoring role I had taken with her. I felt as if Natasha manipulated me into it, as if she were using me as a catalyst for a process she could not manage on her own.
• • •
As the plane headed southeast, toward Abakan, I considered the other crisis Natasha and I had not been talking about. Natasha was not the only one who was feeling ill. I had also been having headaches and feeling sick. The reason was almost certainly a leak at the plutonium factory somewhere near the couple’s flat. I heard about this only yesterday, from friends on the other side of town. There was nothing on the news, of course, and no one was being evacuated. But apparantly, when a Japanese group of scientists took their Geiger counter downtown the needle leaped so high that they refused to go any farther. When I told Igor and Natasha they just laughed and changed the subject, rather too quickly.
Now, recalling that laughter, there was a steely edge to it. It sounded like stoicism, but it was despair. They had nowhere else to go. One reason Natasha had got drunk yesterday, I guessed, was that here in Russia alcohol was regarded as an antidote to radioactivity.
No one was planning to close the leaking factory, far from it. It was the one arms-related factory still operating in the city, kept going by orders from France. No one was even complaining. In fact, everyone seemed to agree that the city was a good deal safer than before: until recently, radioactive waste was still being taken away in open trucks, through the densely populated old industrial area where Natasha and Igor lived.
That leak loomed in my mind, becoming a grotesque manifestation of all those corrosive secrets which had been kept for too long, the city’s and those of Natasha’s family. Natasha’s father might even have built the leaking factory for all I knew. Perhaps the leak had already begun, even as we were lifting our glasses and toasting the old man’s health in his finest Armenian brandy? I should have drunk a lot more of it.
A COUNTRY GOING GOLD TURKEY
I was not looking forward to catching bus after bus for the next stage of my journey, from Abakan to Kuragino. But when the little plane touched down at Abakan airport Vera was there, to my amazement. Her heart-shaped face had filled out. She was plump and brown as a freshly baked bun. The ethereal radiance which once lent her a special beauty was gone. Instead, she looked happy.
She had made the long trek in by car thanks to a towering, red-cheeked, laughing young man with gladiator’s shoulders and hands the size of boxing gloves. The gladiator’s long-legged wife stepped out of the car and stood appraising me with amused curiosity, graceful in her cotton print frock.
Around the airport, the wide green plain bordering the huge Krasnoyarsk reservoir was studded with clumps of purple iris in full flower. We headed east, up wooded slopes and grassy hills toward the Sayan Mountains. Vera and I sat in the back, holding hands, hardly talking, for there was too much to say. I gathered that she had married again. Our companions were her new stepdaughter and her husband. All three were in a holiday mood. They joked about Vera’s hopelessness as a housewife. I had not known what to expect, but this cheerful normality came as a surprise.
“That’s Shushensk, where Lenin married Krupskaya,” remarked Vera’s stepdaughter as the car, innocent of brakes, sped past a church with a little spire. Lenin was exiled to Shushensk after being arrested with the proofs of a clandestine newspaper on him. He was still young. Reading about his life, you get the feeling that the beauty of Shushensk had tested his iron will as no punishment could have done. He even tried his hand at poetry. “In the village of Shushensk, beneath the mountains of Sayansk,” the poem began. But he never got beyond that first line. Lenin swam and fished. When Krupskaya joined him, they hunted together and seem to have enjoyed something like an ordinary married life. Lenin took up chess, and played with his neighbor. So obsessed did he become with the game that when his exile ended he forced himself to give it up altogether.
Poor Krupskaya. Across Russia that summer the gossip was that her autopsy had revealed she was still a virgin. My Russian mother Elena’s friend Rosa had heard this in circumstances which made it almost believable. After the war, when she was only eighteen, the KGB officer in charge of her at work used to offload on her the secrets it was his job to collect. “He would come at night—no, there was nothing sexual in it. I suppose he chose me because I was so young and innocent, so much under his control. He knew most of it would make no sense to me. All I do remember was that story about Krupskaya’s autopsy. Even I understood how dangerous it was. I was appalled—to have to carry that around with me, knowledge that could wreck the life of anyone who heard it! I couldn’t tell my friends, my family! He’d taken that into account as well.”
On top of the hill above Shushensk, we got out of the car. In European Russia what oppressed me was the relentless ugliness. But this—this was altogether different. To the south and east, where we were heading, mountains stretched away as far as we could see, the far peaks capped with snow. I breathed in the pine-sharp air. Overhead the song of a lark reverberated as if we were standing under the cupola of some vast building. What if Lenin had gone on playing chess, I reflected? If he had succumbed to the beauty of this place? How different might Russia’s fate have been?
Several hours of speeding over green, undulating hills brought us to a broad brown river, still turbulent from its descent from the Sayan Mountains. We waited for the rusty ferry, which twisted and bobbed like a paper boat as it carried us over to Kuragino.
The town was built on a grid of streets lined with low wooden houses, each with its garden enclosed behind high fencing. As we pulled up outside one of these houses, a man with the face of a rural philosopher strode out to meet us. Volodya welcomed me kindly, but his eyes were wary.
In itself, their house was unremarkable, consisting of two large, light rooms looking onto the street and a mass of outhouses and storage rooms behind. It had electricity, but other than that it was unmodernized, having an outside privy, no running water, and a large clay stove built into the walls between the rooms. But I could not believe my eyes. The contrast to that cluttered, dusty flat in Saratov could not have been starker. Here, everything was in its place, scrubbed and immaculate. The large vegetable garden behind the house was freshly dug and pale green shoots were already beginning to appear in the meticulously planted beds.
Vera and Volodya laughed at my amazement. When I arrived in Saratov, I remembered how Vera had taken me home and swept a path through the dust as she offered me her son’s bed. How determinedly she had battled against the claims of domesticity, clinging on to music and poetry as if on to a life raft.
Now the couple gave me their living room to sleep in. As I went in to unpack I caught sight of Vera out of the window. She was in working clothes, planting out lettuces in the garden. I did not presume to join her. I had a feeling that I was very much here on approval, from Volodya’s point of view. All afternoon Vera went on working in her vegetable garden. Yes, I got the point: this was how you achieved order, through sheer hard work. But it was tantalizing not being able to talk to her.
I went out for a walk. It was a sunny evening. The dust roads were covered in drifts of apple blossom. Here and there cows with calves were grazing on the broad verges. Kuragino was a charming, sleepy town. Unlike Marx, it was not disfigured by neglect and shoddy workmanship. The carving above the windows of the wooden houses was elaborate and in good repair. Here in Siberia, unlike European Russia, that popular tradition was still very much alive. I thought of Natasha and her father in that radioactive hell, imploring me not to come here because it was too dangerous. The contrast to the decaying, dirty, dysfunctional ugliness of Novosibirsk was stunning. Small boys were herding the townspeople’s cattle back into town. The herd walked down the broad main street, raising dust, each beast peeling off one by one as if in a slow ritual dance, making its way down a side street, waiting outside the high wooden gates of its home for the owner to let it in.
Russian writers have often evoked the delights of the countryside with sentimental eloquence. Usually they were city people, writing about summertime at the dacha. In practice, metropolitan snobbery about the provinces had always been corrosive. But since the fall of communism a few quite prominent literary figures had chosen to move out of the city into deep unspoiled countryside. Perhaps these were just individual choices. But there were deeper factors pointing toward a revival of interest in the great neglected landmass of Russia. For a start, climate change was making Siberia more productive agriculturally. And of course the key to Russia’s future revival, her great mineral wealth, lay not in the west, but here.
There were political undercurrents, too. Leading nationalist figures were saying that the country’s center of gravity today lay not in European Russia but in Asia. They said that Novosibirsk should become Russia’s new capital; that Moscow had sold out to the world order. The idea was being trailed that a partnership of second and third world powers, led by an Orthodox and Islamic coalition, should challenge the domination of the rich Western powers led by America. As yet, most people were too preoccupied by survival to be interested. But if Russia were to turn back toward autocracy, this might be the direction in which an ambitious future leader looked for a “big idea” around which to rally people.
Vera kept working through the long summer evening, until we all met up for supper. The food was delicious, the vegetables so freshly picked that they tasted of the earth. Vissarion’s people were not just vegans, I learned, they ate no meat, fat, dairy food, drank no alcohol, tea, or coffee. When I congratulated Vera on her domestic skills she cast an agonized look at her husband’s severe face. “Volodya’s the one you should be congratulating. He’s the one who’s had to put up with me—he brought up his family in a house which he built entirely himself.” She paused. “He’s been terribly patient, but when we were first together I went through this phase when I was even more hopeless than usual. I can’t tell you, Susan—I nearly burned the house down. Twice …”
Volodya’s stern expression softened and he looked at his wife adoringly: “In the end, I realized there was no point in shouting at her,” he said. “I’d just have to take her as she was.”
“After that it passed,” Vera concluded. “I can’t explain it—it was as if he had to love me at my worst!”
Silence fell around the table. There was so much I wanted to know about Vissarion. But beyond explaining the community’s dietary rules, no one had mentioned his name since I arrived. However, on the wall in the room next door hung a kitsch icon which boded no good. It was a framed photograph of Vissarion sitting against a studio backdrop of Tiepolo clouds, wearing a red robe, shoulder-length hair, and a saccharine smile.
When the light began to fail we went to bed. Vera and Volodya were sleeping in the kitchen, leaving me the large room next door. There, the only signs of Vera’s old life were a couple of small paintings by her talented son. There were hardly any books, and no sign of a tape deck or record player. Did Vissarion disapprove of music and books? If so, it would be a shame, as I had brought my hostess all the songs that Elena Kamburova had recorded since Vera left Saratov.
Soon, the sound of snoring came from the next room. But I was programmed to Natasha and Igor’s nocturnal habits by now. On the window sill, a vase full of purple lilac filled the air with sweetness. I lay looking out of the window, luxuriating in the bright starry night over the Sayan Mountains, thinking about the craziness I had left behind me in Novosibirsk.
I thought about all those secrets which were leaking out there, and about the strange science which had been pursued on the quiet through the Soviet period by people like my professor. More than once on my journey I had felt as if my sanity were under assault. Now, gazing into the night I felt clear. At the moment, things were inside-out and back-to-front in Russia. But the craziness was not to be found in the obvious places. The people seeing those visions in Zarafshan were not the really crazy ones. Nor were the Old Believers, even if they did bury their televisions in the frozen earth. Nor was I, despite the fact that I had heard the forest singing. I knew little as yet about Vissarion’s sect, but whatever the newspapers were saying, these sectarians were going to have to be very dotty to compete with the madness of life in mainstream Russia.
The true insanity had been there in that awesome experiment which Russia and its colonies had undergone, that imperial mission to collectivize the human soul; to own and control everything, from the natural world to every last word printed in the empire.
Today this was a country going cold turkey, drying out from that experiment, from an addiction to control, to secrets, secrets, secrets. Things might seem to be all over the place, but people were recovering. Before the country could start to develop the first vestiges of a civil society, or institutions which respected the concept of the individual, much more time was going to pass and many more of those toxic secrets were going to have to be drained out of the poisoned body of the state.
THE SOCIETY OF ORIGINAL HARMONY
I was woken at dawn next morning by a loud thrumming outside the window. It was coming from a wooden box strapped onto a long, spindly pole. When a starling flew up to it, beak full, I realized what it was. There is a word in Russian meaning “starling box.” I came across it as a student and remember wondering why on earth anyone would go to the trouble of building a nest for such noisy, intrusive birds. Now it made sense: the busy, gossipy sound was a rural alarm clock, a summons to get going, use every hour of daylight in this brief Siberian summer.
Outside the window stood an apple tree in full bloom. Recalling Vera’s old life, cooped up in that dark, cluttered flat with a drunkard, I was happy that she had found this peace and beauty. But the kitsch photograph of Vissarion hanging on the wall was a reminder that I still knew nothing about this man and his cult.
Underneath the flowered curtain covering the doorway to the next room Vera’s slippered feet were padding to and fro as she clattered around, preparing breakfast. Yes, she really was domesticated. It had rained overnight, and the air was sharp. I washed my face in rainwater from the tub and listened to the neighbors’ pigs grunting behind the high solid wooden fencing.
Vera and I walked to the market. On the way, she pointed out a wooden house: “One of the Decembrists was exiled here—that’s his house.” Even here, on the edge of the wilderness, you could not quite escape the heavy boot of the Russian state. The moving spirits behind Russia’s first attempt at revolution from above were officers. After driving Napoleon’s Grande Armée out of Moscow, they ended up in Europe in 1814, parading in victory down the Champs-Elysées. Their tsar had gone on to preside over a Congress of Vienna which convened to stamp out the bacillus of revolution everywhere. But these young officers were already infected. Most were aristocrats, pampered young men who imagined that if only they could kill the tsar, “justice” and “freedom” would break out in Russia. Their rebellion in 1825 was an amateur affair and easily quelled.
Once their prison sentences were over, the rebels were consigned to perpetual exile in Siberia. Most made the best of it, starting schools where there were none, experimenting with crops new to Siberia, writing books and painting pictures. And Siberia rewarded them by adopting them as its very own aristocracy.
Kuragino’s Decembrist was not like that. Alexei Tyutchev was not cut out for heroics. As a young man he belonged to Petersburg’s elite Semionovsky Regiment. They mutinied because of intolerable conditions and were dispersed among other regiments. In the south, where he was sent, Tyutchev joined another secret organization, the Society of Original Harmony. Its members were not aristocrats, but penniless country landowners, provincial civil servants, and officers like him. Had it not been for Tyutchev, the Society’s members would have grown old talking freedom in their cups. But grander Decembrist friends from the old regiment got in touch with their old mate, and they all became embroiled in the Decembrist plot. In exile, Tyutchev married a local girl, took to drink, and eked out a living on handouts from richer Decembrists.
That evening Vera, her husband, and I walked across town for supper at the house of Vera’s new stepson, Viktor. A modern bungalow, it stood on the edge of the town, looking out over a grassy plain that ended in an escarpment of sheer rock. Viktor’s pretty young wife and Volodya’s daughter, who collected me from the airport, had invited friends over. The house was tumbling with little children. Listening to Viktor’s friend singing to the guitar, watching Vera dancing with the little children, I relaxed. There did not seem to me to be anything particularly cult-like about these people. No one had mentioned Vissarion all day, although the young women were keen to show me how well you could eat on a vegan diet. Perhaps Vissarion’s community was more a “lifestyle choice” than a cult? If so, it seemed like a sensible one: rarely since the fall of communism had I been anywhere in Russia where the mood was so carefree.
Only one person looked out of place. Viktor was pale and cadaverous and his head was shaved. Surrounded by these brown, happy people he looked as if he had just been released from prison. Through the meal he kept up a morbid silence, his deep-set tormented eyes trained on me. As the women cleared away the dishes he moved closer: “I was the first in the family to join Vissarion.”
“I wasn’t even searching. A man at work left me Vissarion’s Last Testament. The strangest thing happened. I just picked it up—I can’t explain. I was filled with a kind of ecstasy—as if I recognized it all. Later, when I got to know more, I realized that I’d been alive in an earlier incarnation, when Christ was.” Viktor’s father snorted and left the room, but Viktor was unperturbed. “Do you know why I shaved my head? I wanted to be loved for the right reasons. All my life people have found it too easy to love me.” I tried to avoid looking surprised; there was little that was lovable about him now. He looked desperate, unattractive, a man trapped inside his skin.
“Russia is the most holy place in the world at the moment,” Viktor went on. His earnest tone had emptied the large, sunlit room. “I know that in the West you think we’re wild, and perhaps we are. But that wildness has protected our spirituality. In the West you have everything too easy. Outwardly our lives here are just like everyone else’s. But what’s going on inside—you’ve no idea. Time has changed pace—it’s moving at a tremendous speed. The world is going to end. And only those who are completely open to God will survive. Those who are not will perish.” Viktor fixed me with his mesmeric unhappy eyes: “Remember: there can be different paths. But there is only one Way.”
• • •
An uncomfortable silence followed. Unable to bear Viktor’s tortured gaze, I looked out of the window. On the grassy plain a rainbow rose like a column into the sky. The rocky escarpment was glowing crimson in the evening light. There was something aggressive about Viktor himself which was not in tune with his words, or anything around him.
On the way home Volodya vented his irritation: “Viktor’s full of hot air. None of them were ever nobodies in their past lives—there were no shepherds or peasants. They were all Napoleons!” I liked Volodya’s truculent response.
When we got back home, the sun was low over the crimson cliff that hung over the town. Volodya heated up the bathhouse. As Vera and I sat in the sweltering heat of the wooden room she apologized for Viktor. “Poor boy. All his life he was the golden one. Now he’s suddenly turned out to be as mortal as the rest of us. The Teacher warned us about this. Once we got here, He said, our hidden faults would come to the surface. We have to face up to them, He said, if we’re to move forward. It’s not easy. Viktor’s got a woman,” she whispered, as though whispering would lessen any betrayal of the family trust. The bathhouse, which was built out of railway sleepers, smelled of wood and tar. “She has two children and she’s left her husband. Viktor knows that if he leaves his wife he’ll be giving up his children, whom he adores. He’d also be breaking the Teacher’s fundamental rule: children have a right to a father and a mother, He says. How can Viktor, the golden boy, break up the family?”
There was so much more that I wanted to ask her about Vissarion. But we were both treading carefully. In the silence that followed the only sound was the creaking and sighing of the wooden sleepers as they swelled in the heat. Vera beat my back with birch twigs and the bathhouse filled with the smell of the forest after rain. No luxury that the new city Russians could buy could compare with this ancient delight devised by people contending with the harshest of climates and unremitting physical work.
We wrapped sheets around ourselves and ran outside to watch the sunset over the crimson cliffs. The sky around the crest of the hill was orange. A row of small gray and white overlapping clouds stretched across it like tutus in a corps de ballet. The brown eagles had flown back to their nests in the taiga and the starlings were quiet in their high-slung boxes. I breathed until my head swam.
That night, Vera and Volodya gave me a copy of Vissarion’s Last Testament. I read late into the night. The style was high kitsch, the olde worlde language, with its numbered verses, a parody of the Bible.
So Vissarion was not just a prophet, or even the founder of a new religion. He was actually the Second Coming.
On Sunday, Volodya’s daughter and son-in-law, the laughing young man with hands like hams, arrived early to collect us. We were going to spend the day in the heartland of Vissarion territory.
The community had its own spiritual geography, I was learning. Kuragino was where new arrivals and the fainthearted recruits lived. The more committed people were, the faster they progressed eastward, higher up the mountain. As they did, they acquired the skills required for their new life. This was one where they would live in harmony with the natural world, eating only what they could grow, wearing only what they could make. The heartland lay in virgin forest, at the farthest inhabitable point on the slopes of the Sayan Mountains, by Lake Tiberkul. There, beyond reach of roads, electricity, and state handouts, Vissarion’s men were starting to build his New Jerusalem, a wooden town whose radial design would eventually lead to a temple of white marble.
Our day started peacefully enough. We drove through valleys where red granite cliffs that fell in starched pleats alternated with grassy hills and birchwoods. The sun shone and the woods were a haze of flowers and blossoming shrubs. Standing on the edge of the trees I was tantalized by drifts of white spiraea, blue brunnera, and lungwort. In the woodland clearings, the grass was speckled with pink peonies, white lilies, mottled fritillaries, sun-bright euphorbia, and orange kingcups. Vera stopped me venturing farther, on account of the Siberian tick, which was breeding and hungry for blood. The fields and villages were safe, but the woods were dangerous.
We drove over tumbling rivers, through ramshackle, dying Old Believer villages. Vissarion’s community belonged to a vivid nonconformist tradition in Russia which went way beyond the Old Believers. Ever since the eighteenth century, such outlying regions had been a refuge for non-Orthodox believers. Some, like the Mennonites, Baptists, and Adventists, were Western in origin. But there was also a profusion of homegrown sects, like the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Sabbatarians. From the tsarist Russian government’s standpoint, the problem with these groups was that, like highly motivated minorities everywhere, they tended to thrive. Alexander Rozen, one of the Decembrists, records a striking instance of this in his memoirs. Exiled to central Asia, he came across a group of sectarians who had set up a community called Outskirts in the province of Baku. Converts flocked to it. The government became so alarmed by its success that they founded a rival village nearby, which they called Orthodoxy. They offered people subsidies and tax benefits, cattle and agricultural machinery to settle there, and many did, including soldiers hand-picked for good character. Ten years later, as Rozen noted, Orthodoxy was a poor village, while Outskirts was thriving.
After a few hours’ driving we reached Cheremshanka, the last settlement before the real wilderness began. The little village of wooden houses was framed by wooded slopes and steep green pastures. It was a spectacular site. The snow-capped mountains behind were much closer now. From here on, the taiga stretched unbroken for hundreds of miles.
We had arrived in time for the service at the little wooden church Vissarion’s people had built. It was packed with handsome young people and children. They were dressed in colorful, idiosyncratic clothes, homemade fancy dress. The men, who had shoulder-length hair and beards, were wearing high-necked tunics and boots. The women wore long, bright dresses and elaborate hats. The service had a new age, ecumenical feel to it. Thankfully, there were no images of Vissarion; no one seemed actually to be worshipping him.
All might have been well had we not met up with two recent converts as we left the service. A queenly professor of folklore and her journalist daughter, they also lived in Kuragino. A lively conversation sprung up about the place of nonconformist religions in Russia’s history. I did not notice that Volodya had dropped back. “People talk as though spirituality died out in Russia during the Soviet period,” the professor was saying. “That’s not true, it just came out in different ways—love songs, for instance. They may be addressed to some Nastya or other, but they’re not really about that at all.” As Vera responded excitedly, I caught a glimpse of the woman I had first met in Saratov, one who for all her unhappiness was alive with poetry, music, and ideas.
The professor offered to show us a place which gave an idea of how Vissarion’s New Jerusalem was going to look. We drove across the village with her and her daughter. Volodya stayed behind with his daughter and son-in-law. The little street of wooden houses took my breath away. We had stepped into an illustration from a book of Russian fairy tales. Vissarion’s people were building in the traditional way, using whole trunks of bright birch wood. Every gable, ridgepole, and window was encircled with exuberant carving which stood proud, like starched lace. Even the outdoor lavatory was built with the same virtuosity.
A tall, deep-chested man wielding an ax broke off work on a building to show us around. By the autumn it would be full of wood carvers and women making Palekh lacquer boxes, he boasted, picking wood shavings from his curly, graying beard. In the New Jerusalem every man would build his own house, and live by his craftsmanship. This bogatyr was a lieutenant colonel, an ex–Party man who had been pressured by his wife into joining Vissarion’s people, the folklore professor told us as we drove back to join Volodya.
We found him in a deep sulk. Vera and his daughter cajoled him, but he had retreated into silence, refusing even to accept food. Sitting in the back of the car, shoulders hunched, long face shuttered, it looked as if his skin had shrunk, trapping the real Volodya somewhere out of sight.
• • •
On the long drive home, his daughter and son-in-law did their best to pretend nothing had happened, chattering brightly. Vera sat looking agonized while I cursed myself for not having been more sensitive. I had drawn Vera back into her old world, one where Volodya did not belong. When we arrived back home in Kuragino, Volodya refused to eat supper with us. In fact, as Vera admitted with pained amusement, he announced that he was not going to eat until I left. We agreed that this was not going to do him much harm, as I was catching the train back to Abakan next morning. But I felt helpless to close the rift that my presence had opened up.
For all that, it had been an extraordinary day. After Novosibirsk, with its abandoned factories, leaking plutonium factory, and desperate people, Vissarion’s people seemed like another race. Mostly, they were professionals—doctors, professors, army officers, artists, and even a choreographer. Their faces were bright and open, alive with energy and excitement. Young and old, they looked healthy and handsome. So much for the rumors of malnutrition. The oldest man we met, a retired compressor operator, was the guardian of the new wooden chapel. With his gentle face and gray beard he looked like Tolstoy’s ideal peasant. All these people had thrown up their jobs, sold their flats, cars, and televisions, to start their lives again here.
Vissarion seemed to have taken bits and pieces from all the world’s great religions. His was an apocalyptic creed: only by abandoning our aggressive materialism could the End be averted. No wonder he was anathema to the Orthodox Church: he was actually asking people to live out the ideals which the Church preached.
In Cheremshanka, we stopped at the house of a young couple with a large house which they built themselves. A slim young woman wearing army trousers and an improvised turban stopped her planting and asked us in for blackcurrant leaf tea. As she unwrapped her head to reveal a neck and shoulders covered in red bites, I asked whether those were tick bites. She laughed. How many people had died of tick bites in the community? “None! I should know,” she said, “I’m a doctor. Ticks are the least of our problems.” The real menace were the endless official commissions which trooped out to investigate them. There were parliamentarians from Moscow; local government officials, delegates from the Ministries of Health and Education. Each group came with its own remit, to examine different charges brought against Vissarion. “Some are reasonable enough. They want to check that the kids aren’t malnourished and that they’re receiving a proper education. But most are quite mad. They rant on about us being kept here by force, being brainwashed. If anyone’s brainwashed it’s them. One lot came to investigate whether we were eating children!
“We had another ‘commission’ just the other day. The man who came first must’ve been from the FSB,” as the KGB was now called. “We asked him in but he was in a real state, sweating, eyes all over the place. So we stood by the gate and talked to him. In the end he ventured in, but he sat on the edge of his chair, ready to bolt at any moment. Later on, when he’d relaxed, he told us they’d warned him not to step into any house and on no account to accept anything to eat or he’d be poisoned! They’d shown him pictures of the rapids up there and warned him that we’d try and take him there.” Above the village the road came close to a sheer rock fall. We had stood there to enjoy the view of the white water breaking over the stones as it hurtled down from the mountains. “They said that was where we pushed people off! So dumb—yet not quite so dumb. They knew we were bound to ask them up there as it’s such a great view!”
She sighed. “It was brave of him to drink tea with us—it’s so easy to frighten people in Russia. When the others arrived he ran around like a boy with a new toy. You’d have thought he’d invented us.”
That night I lay awake, breathing in the lilac, struggling with my judgments. Vissarion’s community was fundamentalist. He demanded total obedience. The urban, middle-class men and women who followed him had reverted to a prefeminist view of the roles of men and women, and a conventional division of labor between the sexes, as they learned how to build houses and grow their own food. Worse still, Vissarion, this ex–traffic policeman, expected his followers to believe that he was the son of god. As for the red robes, the quaint olde worlde language, and other kitsch trappings …
The issue of power was what bothered me about established religions, as well as gurus and spiritual leaders. What I had found so appealing about the Old Believers’ relationship with their God was that, in Burny at least, it was direct, unmediated by priests. But ever since the schism, the dominant model in Russian culture had been different. Here, the tradition of power, whether secular or spiritual, was absolutist and centralized, and Vissarion belonged to that tradition.
On the other hand, this was only the second time in my travels through postcommunist Russia that I had come across a community where people were not just happy and healthy, but basking in an overwhelming atmosphere of love. Everywhere else, people were fearful, crazed by the effects of social collapse. Except for the greedy few who got their hands on a fat slice of state assets, most people were living in an ever-anxious present, in a land where the future had disappeared.
Vissarion’s people were inspired by purpose, too. They had accepted the challenge which mainstream society had yet to address seriously: they were exploring ways of living with nature. In this respect the market economy which won the Cold War was only marginally better than the communist model. Both treated the natural world as if it were an adversary, to be “dominated.” Perhaps it was a distraction to snipe at the style and beliefs of Vissarion’s community. This was an experiment which deserved respectful attention.
I feared for the community, however. The anxiety of the Orthodox Church at the notion of any kind of free market in spirituality was about to result in a Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association coming onto the statutes. The main thrust of this measure was to confirm a special status on the Orthodox Church, along with Russia’s Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews, and to deny legal rights to any religious associations that could not prove that they had been based in Russia for at least fifteen years. Decisions on these issues were put into the hands of unknown bureaucratic committees against which there was no appeal.
The move was driven by an established Church which traditionally enjoyed a virtual monopoly over Russian “souls.” The law was calculated to hit foreign faiths and homegrown “totalitarian” sects equally. So far no move had been made against Vissarion’s community. But how much would it take for a disgruntled local priest or official to start up a chain of events that would wipe out this latest attempt to build the New Jerusalem?
• • •
I woke up to a blinding light. Someone was dragging off the bedclothes, pulling up my nightdress. Through a haze of sleep I saw Vera leaning over me in her dressing gown. She was barefoot, her hair loose, furrows between her eyes. It was dark outside. She was feeling me all over, between my legs, under my arms, in my hair. “Don’t worry,” she said.
She was looking for ticks, she said. In the middle of the night, a tick had bitten her on the neck. I was suddenly awake, heart pounding. Was Vera’s bite encephalitic? Only time would tell. As usual she was blaming herself: “It’s my fault. I’m so careless. I didn’t search myself before going to bed, or you …”
After that, I lay watching Volodya’s shadowy figure through the cloth that hung over the doorway. He was busying around in the kitchen, tending to Vera. There was nothing I could do to help. He had sucked at the bite and smothered it in sunflower oil as thick as duck fat. She had drunk her urine, which was said to help combat the poison.
• • •
We lay in the dark in our adjoining rooms. The minutes passed with excruciating slowness. Soon, the dawn would come, and the paralysis would either set in or not. The town was held in a spell of silence. There was no known antidote to the bite of the encephalitic tick. Now and then Volodya and Vera whispered to one another. As long as Volodya stays in bed, I told myself, she’s all right. By breakfast time we would know.
I understood the facts by now: this spring the local radio warned people that there were more infected ticks than ever. No one was to go into the forest in the breeding season. More than three hundred people had died this year … three hundred out of what, I found myself wondering. The community, Kuragino, Siberia?
It was growing light now. The starlings were chattering in their high box. In the room next door, nothing was stirring. Volodya was right to blame me; I had distracted Vera. She was a city woman, and living, just living here, required every bit of her energy and attention. Vera would never have gone near the woods but for me. She came after me, to fetch me back. But I had not been able to resist the beauty of those flowering shrubs, so many familiar from my garden in England. If anything happened to her it would be my fault.
Next day, Volodya came with Vera to see me off at the station. The tick bite was not malignant. Volodya was so relieved that, once he could see that I really was leaving, he had forgiven me.
The train from Kuragino back to the lowlands was crowded. In the hard-class carriage, men lay on the high bunks like fallen statues. On the seats below, people sat crushed together in silence, shoulders sagging, faces set in masks of resignation. After the pure mountain air, the fetid air of sweat and dirty hair in the compartment was a shock. The contrast to those handsome people up in the mountain with their pink cheeks, fancy dress, and improbable beliefs was even more of one. Outside the train windows the snow-capped Sayan Mountains danced in and out of sight. Escarpments of crimson rock reared up. The river water hurled itself over the rocks toward the valley below. But none of my companions so much as glanced out of the window.
Everyone in the carriage was eating. In contrast to Vissarion’s people, they were all too fat. They ate ritualistically, at every opportunity. They ate in order to forget what they had just been doing and in order not to think what they were about to do. The offer of food was a ritual of seduction whose origin was lost, overtaken by the urgent need for solace. These days they ate wherever they were, on planes, on buses, on the streets. At bus stops they ate sweets. Walking down the streets they ate bananas. Once they reached the sanctuary of a bench they whipped out a little cutlet, a sausage, or a boiled egg, wrapped up and brought from home. And through long days that lurched between being too hot and too cold for comfort, they heaved their heavy white bodies, vanity overtaken by a more deeply rooted yearning.
In the corridor, a group of young girls in platform heels were playing pop songs on a tape recorder. I thought about the new songs by Kamburova which I brought Vera. I knew how much the singer’s music meant to her. But she had tucked the tapes out of sight and not mentioned them again. At first I assumed that Vissarion disapproved of such music. Then I blamed Volodya’s touchiness. But perhaps there was another explanation.
Last night Vera told me how hard she had found it to adjust to her new life. “But the longer I spend here, the crazier life in the city seems to me—all those people buying labor-saving devices so that they can rush to work, sit out their time there, and rush back home exhausted to their families. What’s it all for? Here the rhythm’s different.”
• • •
Watching Vera kneading dough, her forearms covered in flour, I understood why she no longer needed Kamburova’s music. Beautiful though they were, the songs were all about loss and grief, and she was happy now.
Her days were busy with the very chores she used to hate so much. They were no longer a distraction, but a discipline. That was the secret at the heart of all contemplative religions. Did it matter what Vissarion called himself if he brought about that kind of change in people’s lives?
• • •
Back in Novosibirsk, I climbed the dark staircase to Natasha and Igor’s flat uncertainly. I was not confident of my reception. I regretted having taken such a high-handed tone with Natasha, my Orestes, in flight from her furies.
I need not have worried. The cat had not yet given birth. But apart from that, it might have been a year, not a week, since I had seen Natasha. Her broad features had cleared. Her snub-nosed, high-cheekboned face looked vivacious, younger. She brushed aside my apologies. “Nonsense—I’m glad you were so rude. It’s just what I needed.” She was still smoking. But she had taken more drastic action. She had tracked down a therapist whom she had known since she was young. “He was a star, quite different from these quacks with their miracle cures. He was dedicated, a sort of holy man. I found him terribly aged. He was only nine years older than me, but his beard and hair had gone gray. He’d used himself up helping his patients.
“Amazingly, he even remembered me. He said I’d have to let go of it all. He tried hypnosis and it all came pouring out. I could see it all so clearly. I could see you, too—you were everywhere. You were right when you accused me of being afraid. I’ve been running away. And suddenly I can face it. I see why you wouldn’t tell me what the point of living was. You were right. I’ve kept thinking about the word for ‘fate’—sud’ba. I used to think it meant what’s been doled out to you—lifeline, stars, and all that. But that’s wrong. What it means, quite literally, is God’s judgment.”
Natasha had actually been quite ill, Igor confirmed. “And while I was in bed I had this frightful dream,” Natasha said. “I was surrounded by bears with great black auras. They were like the bears in the fairy tales. They had people inside them. But there was nothing sweet about them.”
After her first session with the doctor, she tried to persuade Igor to visit him. He refused. He, too, she told me now, was haunted by the ghost of a mother. His had also been a raging beauty, cold as sin. Behind her back everyone had called her “Mme SS.” She refused to divorce Igor’s father, who loved another woman. His father escaped by committing suicide. Instead, Natasha dragged a young friend of theirs to the doctor. “He’s another victim of the mothers. His is psychotic—she’s sucking the life out of him. He’s handsome, talented, and decent. But she won’t even let him go out with a girl!” The doctor agreed. “He said the woman should be put away and never let out. They should all have been locked up, the mothers—Igor’s, mine and that lovely boy’s. The deadly mothers. The boy’s life’ll improve. But can he ever be normal? Can Igor and I? That’s the question.”
Next day, I traveled west again, leaving Natasha, that talented, dynamic woman who had spent years destroying herself. I was hopeful. For the first time all those different Natashas—the golden one, the dark star, and the pathetic little girl—had a chance of coming together. With the help of her holy man she might even be able to confront her past.
Natasha had other news for me, too. Before leaving for Kuragino, I told her about our expedition to the Old Believer village, and about the music I heard in the forest. She was visibly struck by what I said. It reminded her of something, she said. While I was away, she had remembered what it was. She had read an interview in the local paper with some old woman called Anastasia who lived on her own for years in the Siberian forest. Every now and then she would hear the Siberian cedars “singing” to each other. The music was her delight, her reason for living in the forest. What’s more, “She said that only some people could hear it!”
That was all Natasha could remember. She did not even know what paper the article was in. But what she told me was enough. So I really had heard the cedars singing.
THE TWELVE-STEP CORE
On my way back from Siberia I passed by Saratov to visit my friends. Last time I saw Anna she was in an exalted state, acting the passionara. Despairing of democracy, she was bent on exposing the corruption of Saratov’s deputy mayor, whatever the danger to herself. Now that I knew more about the Eurasians whose thinking inspired her I had come to share Misha and Tatiana’s concerns.
Every time I arrived in Saratov, my heart sank. The old city center was looking more dilapidated. Rubbish overflowed the bins, the streets were all holes, and the appearance of the odd new shop mocked the surrounding shabbiness. Most depressing was the contrast between the shabby, sad-faced pedestrians and the ebullience of the men and women I met in Vissarion country.
For all this, my friends were surprisingly buoyant. Tatiana had just given birth to a baby daughter, whom they christened Nadezhda, which means hope. The family was living in Saratov now—and the rift with Anna was a thing of the past. Indeed, Misha and Anna were closer than ever.
By way of celebrating my arrival Misha took Anna and me, his daughter Polina and her friend out of town for a picnic by the Volga. There was a new authority about Misha. Business was booming. Having taken the risk of going into manufacturing before inflation was low enough to make it profitable, the gamble had paid off. His virgin sunflower oil cost twice as much as anyone else’s, but it was good. It tasted of sun and nuts and people were prepared to pay. With sixty people on his books, Misha was now Marx’s biggest employer. Although he had started without capital, he had a head start on his competitors.
Anna had been through a tough time. Her newspaper, Saratov, was in serious financial trouble. She was put on reduced hours and forced to take work wherever she could find it, collecting material for opinion polls. Her outgoings were minimal, since she lived a monastic life in her hostel. But she admitted that sometimes she was barely able to keep herself fed. That period was clearly over now, though what caused the change I did not yet know. I was curious. But I knew Anna better than to ask. She would tell me what she wanted to, in her own good time.
At a casual glance, she looked little changed: she still wore her hair in a tonsure which framed her grave brown eyes with their blue-tinged whites. She still walked as though facing into her own private gale, head down, striding. But the force field of tension around her had died down. It was only occasionally now that I felt her alarm, flapping like the wings of a wild bird. She was much better dressed, too. Indeed, all in all, she was looking rather handsome.
On our way to the Volga we drove through the outskirts of Marx, through the area they called New Thieftown. Since my last visit brand-new buildings had sprouted up. They were fantastical in design, towered, turreted, indiscriminately arrayed with arches, pillars, dormers, mansard roofs, windows French, oriole, and gothic. “Each time the builders start work on a new building we try and find out who they belong to,” Anna commented. “But they put the builders under oath to say nothing—and the paperwork always credits ownership to some Ivanov, or pensioner aunt.”
Misha finally stopped the car in a meadow studded with tiny white and yellow flowers. The floodwaters of the Volga had just died down. The mass of inlets which fissured the landscape on this low eastern bank were still full of water. On a finger of dry land between two inlets, two men were harpooning their quarry with long-handled forks as the fish spread their eggs in the shallows.
It was the first picnic of the year. The sun was shining. The branches of the trees were still bare, but even before the buds burst, an aura of green hung around them. Although the air was cool Anna stripped off down to her lime-green bikini and offered her long pale shanks to the sun. We all wandered around, collecting driftwood for the bonfire. Above our heads, a cloud of gnats filled the air with a ringing tone, and from the nearby willows a chorus of frogs were singing in contralto bursts. Such moments of beauty were rare in European Russia, where the most beautiful places had been despoiled by man’s messy pursuit of an unrealizable idea.
As we hauled our wood back to the fire I ventured to ask Anna how her crusade against corruption was going. “I can’t bear it when journalists play at false heroics,” she growled, slamming the door on further questions. “There are risks in journalism, of course, but you have to be realistic.” Realistic? Anna? She had taken the job of law correspondent at the newspaper. I understood that she started to thrive from that moment on. Indeed, last year she was voted one of the twenty best journalists in Russia by the Writers’ Union. “I’m not even a member!” she said crossly, and I understood that she was just trying not to sound too proud.
That was not all. Izvestia asked her to become their full-time correspondent in the city. She refused: she was quite happy where she was, thank you. What a sweet moment that must have been, considering how some years ago the paper had asked her up to Moscow for a trial, then failed to offer her a job. Now, in her capacity as law correspondent she earned more than any other journalist on the staff. Finally, most important for her, her poems were being recognized: the city’s literary journal, Volga, was publishing them regularly.
At this point, I embarrassed Anna by bursting into tears. I felt so proud. It was paying off, the long, slow bet I had placed on these intelligent, decent young provincial Russians. The way their lives were progressing bore out my growing conviction about the country and its postcommunist time of troubles. Despite the chaos—indeed because of it—it was proving an enormously creative time on the level of individual lives. While the country’s leaders flailed around, behaving reprehensibly, on the level of ordinary people something important was beginning to happen, something on which Russia’s future depended. Anna and Misha did not count as remotely ordinary—they were too smart. But in one sense they were. For they both started with no advantage but native wits and education. Where they led, others could follow. Given time, people who did not have their natural advantages would also start recovering from their addiction to state control. They would lose that terrible obedience to the state which was Russia’s curse. The frightened little person who sits inside every Russian was starting to shrink. Russia’s people had started their twelve-step cure. It was early days yet, the trees were still bare, but the aura of green was there.
Later on, at Anna’s office I would leaf through her recent articles, observing the common thread now running through her work. She was keeping up a sustained attack on the popular sentimentality for “the good old days” which had started to settle in. She was educating people about themselves and their past. Here she was interviewing an old man who was a prosecutor during the Khrushchev years. He was haunted by the memory of sending a man to the camps for ten years for complaining about bread rationing: “I knew the worker was right. But I kept my protest to myself …” Nothing had happened to change Anna’s view that fascism was creeping in. But rather than offering herself as a despairing sacrifice she was working to ensure that the Russian people would be better able to resist it.
Recently, when a gang in Saratov gunned down eleven young rival gangsters with submachine guns, the shock waves reverberated right around Russia. The national press blamed capitalism, and demonized the thugs, assuming that they belonged to a criminal underclass. But Anna tracked down their parents. She found that these “demons” were children of the old Soviet proletariat, communism’s favored class. They still lived at home; washed their hands before meals, and gave their mothers flowers on Mothers Day. She wanted her readers to understand what had happened to these young people. When the economy collapsed, their sudden descent from privilege into poverty was more than they could cope with. They responded by helping themselves to what they were brought up to think was theirs by right.
I went out and bought a good bottle of wine: I wanted to celebrate Anna. In the old days, we had both been culpably wishful. But she was now using her journalism to encourage her readers to acquire the basic tools needed if that missing civic space were going to be built in Russia. It was going to take time, a long time. But if politics were going to change here, ordinary people were going to need to develop a new take on individuality, one which vastly increased their sense of the rights and responsibilities due to the individual.
Now, as we sat on the flower-studded water meadows, something began to stir far away in the steppe. Minutes later, the wind was on us, gusting through the trees. The poplars were dancing and the tops of the willows and birches swaying. But here on the ground, the air was quite still. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the wind moved on and a gust of rain swept in, sending us diving for shelter.
The rain stopped as abruptly as it started, and we gathered around the bonfire to drink beer and eat salt fish. On the bonfire, Misha was cooking long kebabs which we threaded onto stripped green branches. His boyish face had filled out and he looked confident and, for a moment, almost relaxed. When we first met, there was little to distinguish him from all the other young men who were trading in anything they could lay their hands on. I did not yet understand what it was in the circumstances of his life, or parentage, that stiffened him for success. His rarest quality, it seemed to me, was his faith in the future. Fortune favors those who can imagine a future when others cannot.
Right now he was in a rage. He had just been turned down by the local authorities for the only loan he could afford. “They took one look at our application, assumed we were just traders, and turned us down! It’s outrageous! I’m just the kind of entrepreneur Russia needs! I’m making something really essential—and my money’s all here! But they just treat us with contempt. In fact we’re the only source of money they’ve got to pay all their tax-men and policemen. Do you know we’ve now got four hundred policemen in Marx—yes, in the town alone! They squeeze us and squeeze us.
“No matter how hard I work, I’ll never be able to live as well as the most piddling of these bureaucrats. It’s not that they earn much, but boy do they steal! It would be OK if they robbed in moderation, but their greed for other people’s money is bottomless. Who is it that lives in castles and drives foreign cars around here? It’s the officials. And when they’ve lined their own nests, they go on to house their parents, to set up their kids, their cousins and aunts! They don’t just take money, they take anything—building materials, workmen—anything!”
“Ah well, at least the young don’t have illusions anymore,” Anna said, looking over at Polina and her friend, who had tuned in to some music on the car radio, opened the car doors, and were dancing on the flower-studded grass.
Anna accompanied me to the railway station. It was growing dark as we stood on the platform. A man was going down the train, tapping the wheels, testing for metal fatigue, just as he was doing a century ago, when Anna Karenina watched him before throwing herself under the wheels of the train.
There was no one else in the four-bunk compartment of the sleeper. In the old days, the train would have been full. We would have shared food, stories, jokes, and fears. Now only the rich could afford to travel. As the train prepared to leave, my friend who had always seemed so allergic to intimacy was affectionate as never before. She gave me a book, on the first page of which she had written: “Sometimes you find that you are much closer to a person who was born on the other side of the world and who speaks a different language than to those you live alongside.”
The train set off into the night, over the long-suffering Volga countryside. “I think that you are a-little-bit-me,” Anna had once written to me, when she barely knew me. I was moved by her words, moved enough to return to Marx. But I did not understand what prompted them. Now I had come to love this difficult, intelligent, intractably honest woman and to share her feeling that in some mysterious way our lives really were connected.
MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
For a long time I barely dared open up the memory of that music I heard in the forest. But it had gone on resonating in my mind, that glorious chord which sounded as if all the choirs of Russia were singing at once, hidden in the trees. Natasha’s story had reassured me. It allowed me to own my experience again.
At the start of my journey, I had dreamed about traveling to a strange city full of totemic objects where I communicated with people in trochees and spondees. The reality had been even stranger than that dream. How could trees sing? I made desultory attempts to find out, but I had no idea where to look.
Then, in the course of the winter, I came across a clue in a footnote in a remaindered book. It was about a waterfall in western Mongolia which was said to “sing.” Herds of wild animals would come there to listen. People came, too, from all over Mongolia, students of hoomi, the native tradition of throat singing. They came to learn from the waterfall.
Back home, I went to hear a group of visiting hoomi singers from southern Siberia. Their wild rhythmic music, the songs of a herding people who lived and slept under the sky, was interspersed with high light ringing sounds that seemed to take on a life of their own. Though the sounds were strange, the intervals were familiar. That was when I understood. The hoomi singers had perfected the art of teasing out the harmonics in a single, sustained, guttural note, using the cavities of the head to amplify the sound. What I heard in the forest were natural harmonics.
Pythagoras is credited with being the first to start exploring natural harmonics in a systematic way. After hearing the sound of a hammer striking an anvil, he observed the intervals of the overtones released by that blow. He worked out the mathematics of the ratios involved, and explored their significance for geometry and astronomy.
• • •
What was it that had produced the music I heard as I stood in the Stony Tunguska River, with the Siberian forest stretching for miles around? Had the receding outboard motors of the Old Believers’ dinghies, or the approaching plane, triggered the harmonics of the forest, setting every cedar for miles around ringing with sound?
I began to become aware of the harmonics around me, aware that everything from planets to plants, wind to engines, was in a state of constant vibration. One night on the radio I heard a snatch of music from Fontenay Abbey, in France. It was a single bass voice, singing low sustained notes. The singer was releasing silvery scarves of sound that floated on the air, bursting into harmonic cadences. That was when I realized that the art of playing with the harmonics of the voice, which those hoomi singers had preserved, was integral to the great European tradition of sacred singing in the Middle Ages. So much so that some of the architects of the monasteries had even learned how to build in such a way that the church would act as a resonating chamber, triggering those harmonics. All this we knew once and then forgot.
My travels in the unraveling Soviet reality had taken me a long way off the map of my known world. Again and again I had come up against things I could not describe, because I did not understand them. Doing so had made me despair, for what kind of a writer was I if I could not lassoo the reality around me into words? But now I began to accept that I did not need to understand everything. Even as I grasped what that music was, I also realized how little understanding mattered. What did was the music, those vibrations of the Big Bang, the sound of life itself. Plato and the classical world had regarded it as the music of the spheres. This was where thought and language gave way to silence. But “For most of us,” as Eliot put it,
there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses …