VLADIMIR PUTIN, A CAREER OFFICER IN THE FSB (FEDERAL SECURITY Service), became prime minister in August 1999. He became acting president when a derelict Yeltsin stepped down at the end of the year. His elevation returned to power a security elite that had been marginalized since the fall of Soviet power. For them, the end of communism was the great geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Their policies would be driven by a burning sense of shame. The governing idea of the new regime would be the need to restore Russia’s greatness.
The month Putin became prime minister saw Chechen separatists invade neighboring Dagestan. A series of explosions in residential buildings across Russia, ostensibly caused by Chechen terrorists, also killed some three hundred people and sent shock waves through the country. The vigilance of a local man prevented a further explosion in Ryazan which bore the hallmarks of having been planted by the FSB. Thus was the public prepared for the start of a new Chechen war, together with the emergence of a strong leader.
The failure of the first Chechen war was seen as a humiliation to be avenged. In the course of this new military campaign in Chechnya, Putin started transferring the task of pacification from the Russian army to pro-Kremlin Chechen militias. Akhmad Kadyrov was “elected” president in Chechnya’s first elections in October 2003. After he was assassinated the following May, his son Ramzan, whose militias proved even more brutal than the Russian army, became his de facto successor.
After the second Chechen war began, terrorist attacks inside Russia became a feature of life, heightening people’s feeling of insecurity. Strong rumors of the FSB’s involvement accompanied some of them. The seizure by Chechen fighters of a Moscow theater in October 2002 did Putin’s popularity no harm, although 129 Muscovites were killed along with the fighters when the building was stormed.
The culmination of these attacks occurred in September 2004, when Chechen fighters occupied a school full of children and adults in Beslan, North Ossetia. Bungled intervention by Russian troops left hundreds dead (officially, 340, but in fact far more) and a stench of obfuscation coming from the Kremlin. Once again, rumors of the state’s murky involvement were rife. Putin’s popularity faltered, but soon recovered.
From the start, Putin declared it his mission to reassert the power of the state: what was good for the state was a priori good for Russia. On the domestic front, his first major step was to call the regional governors to heel and form seven vast regions, governed by his appointees. Next, he destroyed the independent media empires of Berezovsky and Gusinsky. By the summer of 2001, the old hierarchical state structure was starting to reemerge.
Putin proceeded to set up a series of institutions which imitated the functions of democracy, while remaining under state control: virtual “political parties,” a “free press,” and an “independent judiciary.” He encountered little opposition. For most people “democracy” was by now synonymous with gangs, wild speculation, and the absence of regulation. They wanted order and stability.
Putin’s popularity was cemented by the buoyant economy: ever since the financial crash of 1998 it had been growing at an average 6.4 percent a year. This was chiefly due to the price of oil. When he came to power it stood at $17 a barrel, and it had been rising ever since. Other measures helped: nonagricultural land could now be bought. Barter was no longer playing a significant role in the economy. Putin had also succeeded in revolutionizing the system of tax collection, and introduced a new flat-rate income tax.
Popular though Putin was, his strategy produced problems. He had come to power as a modernizer. But the regime he introduced was in many respects ill-suited to the task of modern government. There was a price to be paid for having centralized power, for having undermined the judiciary, reined in the press, and destroyed the political opposition. Without horizontal supports and counterbalancing powers, the bureaucracy was doomed to inefficiency and, above all, to corruption. Gone was the freewheeling corruption of the 1990s, which had put power in the hands of gangs. The streets were safe now, but the state bureaucracy itself was infected with corruption, from top to bottom.
Western business interests were becoming alarmed about the state’s increasing high-handedness. In October 2003 the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of tax evasion. He was sentenced to nine years in prison and the assets of Yukos, Russia’s largest private company, were redistributed to those close to Putin. Khodorkovsky, alone among the oligarchs, had made the mistake of starting to use his wealth to support the development of democracy in Russia.
Once hopes that the West would launch a great postcommunist Marshall Plan died, an anti-Western mood began to set in among Russia’s elites. The decision by the Western powers not to dismantle NATO fed this mood, and NATO’s air strikes against Serbia in 1999 stoked the flames. Russia’s new sense of isolation was increased between 1999 and 2004 by the choice of three former Soviet republics and four former satellites to join both NATO and the EU. Their admission directly contravened the agreement between Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James Baker in February 1990 not to “expand the zone of NATO.”
Putin’s decision to support George W. Bush’s war on terror after the attacks on New York in September 2001 defied this new anti-Western mood. However, the overture was poorly reciprocated by the new Republican administration: US aid to Russia was cut back. America withdrew from its thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Congress confirmed the old Cold War Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked its trade relations with Russia to levels of Jewish emigration. The United States also failed to throw its weight behind Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Most ominously from the leadership’s point of view, when two former Soviet republics (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine at the end of 2004) turned their faces westward in “color revolutions,” the hand of the United States was deemed to have played a critical role. Fears of this happening in Russia would become a governing political factor from now on.
One of the Kremlin’s responses was to declare its ideological independence from Western theories concerning the legitimacy of the state. Vladislav Surkov formulated the concept of sovereign democracy to describe Russia’s autocratic government. This vested the regime’s legitimacy not in the people or their votes, but in the strong national identity of its governing elite.
CORDELIA OF THE STEPPES
“There, you see,” said Khanin. “What’s the most important feature of the Russian economic miracle? Its most important feature is that the economy just keeps on sinking deeper and deeper into the shit, while business keeps on growing stronger and expanding into the international arena.”
VIKTOR PELEVIN. Homo Zapiens
Lying back on my top bunk, I surrendered to the rhythm of the train. I was traveling overnight to Saratov. My companions were a wiry sergeant-major from Engels and a young couple from Moscow, she pregnant, he pink and porcine, going to visit her parents. Russian Germans by origin, they had grown up in central Asia and arrived back in Russia with nothing, refugees from nationalism.
In the mid-nineties it was hard not to be infected by the collective anxiety on such journeys—all those stories of passengers being gassed, of murderers bundling bodies off the train at dead of night. Now that seemed a long time ago. The rituals of the sleeper worked their soothing magic: the bulky attendant brought us sheets and tea, and we ate our picnics. Outside, the trunks of the birches gleamed.
The sergeant-major, proud that the army had kept him on beyond retirement age, was poor and lively: a skier, he sailed on the Volga, played the guitar, and grew flowers and vegetables. The young businessman and his saleswoman wife had no time for hobbies, they admitted shyly. By the time they got home from work, they had no energy left to do anything but watch television. But soon they would be able to start building their house.
This conversation dried up rather suddenly. I watched my companions coming up against something which embarrassed them, a line running through our compartment. The young couple belonged to the new middle class, which numbered some thirty million by now. Every day the distance between this new class and the rest of their compatriots was growing.
As the train drew into Saratov, I thought of my friends. Misha and Tatiana obviously belonged to this new class. But I was less sure on what side of the line I was going to find Anna.
• • •
Since my last visit to Saratov Misha had become Mikhail Ivanovich: an important man. In his early forties now, his face and the curve of his shoulders expressed dogged determination. He had filled out and become self-assured.
With the help of that processor which had sat unused for years in a shed in Marx he had now cornered 35 percent of the market for sunflower oil in Saratov province. He sold his virgin oil right up and down the Volga, as well as in Moscow and parts of Germany.
The Solntse factory was now enclosed by tall gates. A row of tall silos for storing seed had sprung up. The plant employed 180 people; working night and day, it produced some six hundred tons of oil a year. When I first met Misha, Rodon, the secret electronics factory for which he once worked, was the largest employer in Marx. Now this role had passed to Solntse. Since my last visit, Solntse was awarded a prize by an independent panel as one of Russia’s one hundred finest products.
Misha had started farming, too. Indeed, he was the largest private farmer in the district. Three years ago, knowing nothing about agriculture, he took over a bankrupt collective farm in what had once been a Russian German village. His land now measured forty kilometers from end to end and encompassed three villages.
He had equipped the room off his own large office as a gym, full of gleaming equipment. He regarded the increasingly anti-Western political mood in Russia as so much posturing. His own horizons had grown along with the business. His family holidays were spent in France now; Tatiana dressed in Max Mara, and he relied on Germany’s agricultural fairs to keep him up to date with farming techniques and machinery.
So Misha had realized his dream, become a powerful businessman. Why was it then, I kept asking myself, that I did not feel more like celebrating my friend’s success? Something was missing when Misha talked about his work. The zest, the appetite for adventure had gone. He seemed strangely subdued.
Misha’s farm manager, Viktor Goldantsev, drove me around the farm in his jeep. An elegant, balding man with gold-rimmed glasses and a well-cut suit, he cut an improbable figure in that rural landscape. He knew nothing about farming when Misha invited him to run the operation. But it was a shrewd choice. Viktor knew how to make things happen: for years he ran a nuclear power plant in the ice-bound north, Murmansk. He was enjoying himself now. “When we took it over, the place was a wreck,” he shouted as we drove across the steppe, looking over vast fields of mixed crops. “The irrigation was broken—everything was. There wasn’t a single tractor—and no one’d been paid for two years!” Last year the farm turned a profit for the first time. “But it’ll take a generation or two before people here learn to work again normally.”
Misha himself was making the fifteen-hour trek back from Ukraine. He was driving against the clock, bringing his elderly mother to live with the family in their luxurious apartment in Saratov. Misha’s mother had worked the land all her life. Although she was nearly eighty, through the years of inflation, when city people could not manage on their earnings, she had kept her two older children and their families fed from her plot of land. Only when she grew too blind did she give it all to them, like King Lear, and go to live with them. Now they had declared themselves fed up with housing her. She was too difficult: her precious Misha could look after her. The old woman was horrified at the prospect of being dependent again, and on a daughter-in-law with whom she had little in common. Tatiana was worried, too. For a start, she could barely understand the old woman’s thick Ukrainian burr.
When I met the old woman, Lyuba (short for Lyubov, “Love”) was being entertained by her seven-year-old granddaughter Nadezhda (“Hope”), whose blonde face adorned every bottle of Solntse oil. Not much larger than her granddaughter, she wore a white kerchief, flowered housecoat, and heavy woollen stockings. Sitting on the edge of her bed in the large flat with its parquet floors, she looked bewildered. Her nut-brown face was plowed with lines and she gazed out from sightless eyes. “So good to me, so good,” the old woman kept muttering. Tatiana’s kindness had upset all the old woman’s expectations.
Lyuba was the reason why Misha had survived in the jungle of Russian business, where so many other decent, clever people failed. She had come through the great famines of 1932–1933 as a child younger than Nadezhda now. That genocidal famine killed more Ukrainians than any war in the country’s history. The facts had been so harshly suppressed that no one knew what the toll was—five million, possibly as many as eight. For decades the famines were mentioned in no Soviet book, no newspaper or speech. But Ukrainians understood why they happened, and it was not shortage of grain. It was the result of a policy aimed at breaking the spirit of Ukrainian independence, and the resistance of its peasantry to collectivization.
Although Lyuba and her four brothers survived, malnourishment left her unnaturally small. Those whom famine spared, war did not. All the men in the family went on to die at the front, except one brother, who died later of his wounds. Lyuba married at eighteen. After begetting two children, her petty criminal husband abandoned her. She and her mother remained on the collective farm, effectively enslaved. For like all the kolkhoz workers, she was not allowed to leave the land; nor paid in money or kind for her labor. In order to feed her family, she had to set to work tilling her own plot at the end of her working day.
A strong woman, she had a fiery temper and unshakable will. At the age of thirty-seven she met a man older than herself who had fought in the war, been arrested, and gone to camp on some trumped-up fraud charge. By the time he was freed his wife had long ago remarried. Misha’s father could not have been more unlike his temperamental little wife. He had a saintly sweetness. He never raised his voice, or told his wife off. “He was so gentle that when he stroked his little son he would go like this,” said Tatiana, passing her hand over her daughter’s head a centimeter away, without quite touching.
When Misha was little his grandmother was struck by lightning as she was working in the fields. Had she not fallen into a puddle, she would have been killed outright. The lightning burned her right down her back. So great was the pain that she could not bear it; she hanged herself.
Now, the sole survivor of those years sat in her room missing her own bed, her dog, the cow and hens which her daughter had wasted no time taking over. Misha came back from work late and went into the darkened room where his mother sat alert, waiting. He handed her an ear of wheat from his fields. Lyuba’s sight was almost gone and it was dark, but she only needed to feel the ear of wheat: “Three weeks it’ll be ready—not a day before, mind.” Then her youngest child sat on the floor and talked to her as he could to so few people about the difficulties of his day and the toll success was taking on him: “I can’t go on, Mother. I’m just too tired …”
“You’ll do it, son,” Lyuba reassured him. “You’ll go on.” He would because she had, because he was her beloved son.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
As long as I stayed with Misha and Tatiana in their fine new flat, driving in the car, I was insulated from the real Saratov. But when I moved to Anna’s I began to appreciate what had happened in the city.
Although Russia’s economy was growing steadily, Saratov had regressed to another century. Old wooden buildings were leaning at tipsy angles along the piss-reeking streets. Headscarved women sat begging, intoning interminable prayers. Homeless men with matted hair, faces burnished by alcohol, rummaged through overflowing rubbish bins. Yet every now and then an immaculately modern girl would emerge from one of the topsy-turvy houses and pick her way to work down the ruined road.
At a crossroads, police outriders were clearing the traffic aside for the governor’s cavalcade of six black limousines. As they shot by, sirens blaring, I wondered whether the tinted glass in their car windows was dark enough to obscure the disrepair of the fine nineteenth-century buildings past which they sped. Built by merchants flush with money from the wheat and timber trade, those façades with their fine wrought-iron balconies were merely decrepit when I first visited Saratov. Now they were fit only for demolition. The odd new shop-front, chic café, or arcade with slot machines had been clapped on. A huge cathedral had also shot up from nowhere. But these bright splashes were like lipstick on the face of a wino; they merely threw the dereliction into sharper relief.
Of Saratov’s population of one million, some thirty thousand people were living in high-rise blocks which were condemned as too dangerous for habitation, according to Anna’s paper. New blocks were going up all the time. In theory, 15 percent of the flats in them were allocated to social housing. In practice, these, too, were being sold off privately. The old ones were just falling down. The month before my visit, two more collapsed. In one, which was fully occupied, an entire side wall fell away at dawn one day. How no one was killed remained a mystery. The residents trooped outside and waited until they realized that, this being Saratov, no one was going to bandage them up and offer them somewhere else to live. So they returned to the ruins and got on as best they could with their lives.
The man presiding over this disintegration was Ayatskov, the notoriously corrupt Yeltsinite governor of Saratov province. Putin’s attempts to remove him had so far failed. He was the man whose corruption Anna started investigating all those years ago when he was the city’s deputy mayor, before learning that her stories were being spiked because he had bought up the paper she was working for.
For years, the law was after him, but he enjoyed protection high up in the pyramid of power. One prosecutor began a trial case against him for pocketing millions of dollars on some deal involving American combine harvesters. But that was suspended. Meanwhile, every street kiosk in the city paid “rent” directly to him. The most visible display of his wealth was the Wagnerian castle he built himself out in the country, and the private plane which flew him to it.
Anna, who covered such cases in her capacity as law correspondent, was welcoming. With her boyish figure and monastic bob, she looked barely older than when we first met. She was less awkward and better dressed now. But a light had gone out behind her eyes. She looked huddled over somehow, as if some string holding her up had been cut.
Last time we met, I was so proud of her. She had come into her own. She was using her interviews to explore the extent to which each person is responsible for their past, and that of their country. She was helping her readers expand their sense of the rights and responsibilities which attached to them as individuals, rather than the state. When I left her I was feeling, yes, this is how that civic space needs to be built in Russia; it will take time, but one day, surely, it will end up being realized in a new contract between the rulers and the ruled.
That felt like a long time ago now. I knew Anna too well to expect from her a straightforward account of this missing period. Only when she told me that she had stopped writing poetry altogether did I realize quite how depressed she was. For her poetry mattered more to her than anything.
One day I went into her office at Saratovsky Arbat and sat reading back copies of the paper while she worked. The paper was more than usually parochial. Anna’s articles were mostly about crime, but they were dull, with little of their old ambition.
I tried not to be disappointed. After all, Putin had come to power announcing in his Open Letter that “the stronger the state, the freer the individual.” To anyone old enough to remember Soviet-speak, the message was clear and only a little more prolix than the three slogans of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
One of Putin’s first moves when he came to office was to close down Russia’s two remaining independent media empires. The press took the point: as in Soviet days, its role was not to stimulate individuals to think for themselves, but to support central government in the task of keeping order, making Russia great again.
Anna was living in a couple of rooms in a slum on the city limits. It had no flush lavatory, no hot water, and no carpets. A dim bulb hung down from a wire in the high ceiling, like an unripe pear. Trucks shook the windows as they roared out of town on the main road. But Anna loved her flat, which had enabled her to leave the hostel and keep a pet at last. Lucy, her black cat, was her intimate now. When she came home at night, Lucy would bound out from among the rubble to meet her, like a dog.
Anna had turned her energies inward. Of an evening, she would lie on her bed, Lucy on top of her, reading works by Russia’s great religious writers, so long banned. Or she would go and visit Father Michael and the nuns who ran Saratov’s Catholic church. Her face lit up when she talked about the elderly Irish priest and his group of happy, dedicated nuns from all over the world. “They’re lovely people—I really enjoy their company.” There was an unspoken “but” at the end of this sentence. Although I was curious, I knew better than to ask.
• • •
Anna’s life was beset by problems. She was about to become homeless again, for a start. In her desperation to get out of the hostel she had recklessly traded in her one possession, the flat in Marx, for five years in this slum. Now, long before that period had elapsed, the son of the woman living in her flat had turned up, claiming his right to live in his mother’s flat. Anna, law correspondent though she was, had not thought to legalize her house swap.
What was she going to do now? Buying was not an option. Even in the rough part of town a small flat now cost around $7,000. As an experienced journalist, she earned relatively good money—twice as much as a teacher, five times as much as a nurse. But it was not enough to save. Mortgages were extortionate, and to get a loan required two people from the province to stand surety. None of her friends would risk that: what if she fell ill? This was why people took to accepting bribes. But Anna was condemned to honesty.
She had professional problems, too. Some Chechen who lived in Marx had complained about an article of hers, some weapons having been found at his home. The accusation had released her buried anxieties, left her with a morbid fear of misrepresenting anyone in print. No wonder her articles were so dull.
Where was the passionate, eccentric woman I had come to visit? I was sure she had not changed. But she was in hiding. Reading her diary was an act of desperation, though I reassured myself that Natasha had long ago told me how Anna used to leave her diary out, in order for me to read it. When she went to work it still lay there, on her writing table. For three days I just looked at it. On the fourth I picked it up: “No! I haven’t crossed over from Catholicism to Orthodoxy,” I read, “or the other way around. I remain both, and neither. Catholicism has given me a lot! I feel much more comfortable in the Catholic Church than in the Orthodox one, but when I want to confess I go to the Orthodox Church. And as I wait for my confession I feel tormented, terribly tired from all that standing, from all those hours listening to a language I don’t understand a word of. Tired, too, of taking part in something I don’t understand. I feel tortured, angry, but I don’t go back to the Catholic Church. Well, perhaps I will, as a guest. That I can do.”
That voice, the voice of the real Anna, was so alive that I felt as if I had been eavesdropping. Guiltily, I closed the diary and put it back. But I had read enough.
I sympathized with the struggle she was having with Orthodoxy. After the end of communism people’s thirst for spiritual answers was so apparent: who were they, and what did they believe in, if they weren’t communists? The Orthodox Church did not appear engaged with this crisis. Yes, the Church had too few priests, and they were sorely undereducated. But it seemed to me that they could at least have translated the prayers and liturgy into modern Russian, or given newcomers translation sheets. For anyone walking into the church off the street, as Anna had done, the prayers and liturgy were incomprehensible. I tried to find out why the Church was doing nothing about this, but the answers seemed to me unsatisfactory, evasive. All I knew was that a priest in Moscow got into trouble with the Church authorities for holding his services in modern Russian.
However, as I learned more about Orthodoxy I began to see how much my concern with understanding marked me out for the Westerner I was. It landed me in the thick of the great ongoing theological battle between the two branches of Christianity, Eastern and Western. Over the centuries, theologians of the Western Church grew more and more preoccupied by wanting to understand divinity, to grasp it in words. But the Eastern Church insisted that the fact that God could not be understood was the point: rationalism was not an appropriate tool for the discussion of God. Slowly, as my travels brought me up against the limits of understanding as an approach, what once bothered me about Orthodoxy started to interest me more and more. For this Church regarded itself as the guardian of a tradition which was proof against attempts to modernize it. It was a proper mystery, one with which each person had to contend on their own, in their struggle to contemplate the mystery of God.
I could not talk to Anna about what I read in her diary. But next morning, as I got up, I was thinking about the frustration with the language and rituals of Orthodoxy which her diary expressed so vividly. The theological divide between Rome and Byzantium had its correlation in the cultural divide between Westernizers and Slavophiles. As long as I had known her, Anna had been quintessentially a Westernizer. Intellectually curious, she must have begun her spiritual explorations by wanting to understand more about her faith. It was hardly surprising that where the Orthodox Church would not, or could not help, the Catholic Church engaged with her need. As time went on, she must have started to realize that what she was looking for went deeper than understanding. So here she was, caught on the ancient theological divide between Christianity’s Eastern and Western traditions; between her need to understand—kerygma—and her longing for religious experience, which cannot be grasped with words, dogma.
Anna’s bathroom was a good place for such reflection. Washing in it involved standing in the bath, leaning over a bucket, and dipping one limb after another into cold water. As I dried myself I considered the journey Anna and I had been on since the early 1990s. How dismissive we would both have been if anyone suggested that one day this mystery would come to have more meaning for us than understanding.
• • •
Anna broke her self-imposed silence about politics only once. For a moment, her passion flared out like gas from an oil field. We were walking in Saratov’s “Victory Park,” a monument to the city’s days as a hub of the armaments industry. The bluffs around us were adorned with rusting tanks and heavy artillery. “Make no mistake—what’s happening now is the re-Sovietization of Russian life,” she burst out unexpectedly. “Take the press—there is no freedom of speech left. Putin’s clever—typical FSB man. He didn’t make a great announcement that would have brought the intelligentsia out against him. He just set about picking off the independent voices one by one. And people don’t react. Partly, they’re just tired. Partly, they know it won’t do any good. It’s not that I don’t mind anymore—far from it. There was a time when I was almost hysterical. But I’ve had to accept that nothing I can do is going to make any difference. We were very naive, you know, during glasnost—we really thought we could change something.
“I’d like to think that the next generation’ll do better,” she went on. “You just can’t tell. For a start, they’re not remotely interested in freedom as an idea. They want to be successful, personally, and they’re prepared to work for it. They won’t become political until some bureaucrat gets in the way of their ambition—if then. Take Polina,” she said, referring to Tatiana and Misha’s older daughter. “By the age of fifteen she was grown up, focused on her ambition. She worked all the time—never took days off. At her age I was all over the place.”
No wonder Anna was in despair. The Yeltsin years were now generally regarded as those of Russia’s humiliation. But I knew better. She and Misha between them had demonstrated to me better than anyone the way hope ran through that chaotic time like a bright thread. Thanks to them, I had begun to see the 1990s as a time of incubation, when people were starting to think and act for themselves. It had not seemed absurd to imagine that when things finally settled down, the order that emerged might be one where a critical mass of Russians would begin to understand why it was important for Russia to develop a civil society, with an independent press and judiciary, a place where the rights of individuals mattered. Anna had staked everything on that. While Putin’s regime had brought stability, it had killed off her hope that she would see a civil society develop in Russia within her lifetime.
I came away feeling wretched about our friendship. In the years after the fall of communism I had felt a-little-bit-Anna. But we had met at a time when the pendulum of Russian history was pointing westward. Now it had swung away, toward autocracy. Anna’s life as a prominent provincial journalist was tied to the swing of that political pendulum. From now on, we were going to have to make an effort to bridge the divide. There was the added problem that anything I wrote might make life awkward for her.
MY DREAM HOUSE
Over the years I had sent letters and messages to Novosibirsk, but there had been no response. Natasha and Igor had vanished without trace. I found them through Anna. She had received an e-mail from Igor out of the blue, with some information he thought would interest her. “And did it?” “Huh!”
The couple were somewhere in Crimea now, on the Black Sea. I had invited myself to stay with them. The departure hall of Moscow airport was full of Russians who seemed to consider it normal to be going abroad with the family on holiday. They were leafing through glossy Russian magazines entitled Limousine and Property Today and their children were wearing brand-new track-suits and listening to iPods. But these beneficiaries of Moscow’s boomtime were not rich. They worked as bookkeepers, chauffeurs, and chefs. Crimea was cheap and did not really count as “abroad.” Indeed, it had been part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev, in a quixotic gesture, bequeathed it to Ukraine, his native land. Until the Soviet Union broke up that had not made much difference to Russia. But now it was a phantom limb: it felt like part of Russia, though it was not.
On the flight I tried to imagine what had become of Natasha and Igor. Would they have joined the thrusting new economy of my fellow passengers? When we last met in Siberia, the couple had come through many an ordeal and equipped themselves with business skills. I tried to imagine them living a prosperous, middle-class life by the sea, but this seemed unlikely. The forces shaping their lives were stormy and unpredictable, and this move suggested that Natasha was still running away from her past, from the mother who haunted her dreams.
Natasha was there to meet me at Simferopol airport. Her snub-nosed Slav face under that thick mop of curls was burnished by sun, and her eyes were sparkling. She was jumping up and down with excitement. By her side was a smartly dressed younger man who walked with a bad limp. Hmm, so she had finally left Igor. “Oh no, it’s not what you think!” she said quickly. “Meet our dearest friend and colleague—Volodya, hero of the Afghan war.”
As Volodya drove south out of Simferopol, Natasha told me his story. A much-decorated young colonel, he had been brought here straight off the battlefield in Afghanistan, almost dead from his wounds. By the time his convalescence was over, Crimea had become home. The community of retired Russian servicemen was large, for Russia’s navy was still based here. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the government struck a deal with Ukraine that until 2017 they would go on renting the facilities of the naval base.
The low rolling hills over which we were driving were so dense with color that we might have been in a landscape by Derain, or the young Kandinsky: purple fields of lavender, vastly overgrown, gave way to golden slopes of wheat, ripe for harvesting, then to ropes of green vines stretching out of sight. The usual litter of rusting frames and posts, half-built concrete sheds, and fencing could not mar the improbable beauty of the place.
Once, said Volodya, the wine was good and the trade in lavender oil lucrative. But the collective farms that had kept the Soviet naval bases supplied had fallen apart. The soil was so rich it produced three harvests a year. The food kept growing, but there was little market for it now. By the roadside men and women were selling tomatoes; raspberries, cherries, and strawberries; and vegetables, ridiculously cheap.
Natasha was talking about the politics of Sevastopol and some project that she and Igor were doing with Volodya. As she talked, something fell into place: the same instinct for trouble which led the couple to move across Russia into the eye of a political storm in Marx was surely at work again in their move down here. For Crimea, fought over for centuries, was today locked in a battle invisible to the outside world. It had become Ukraine’s Hong Kong: Russia’s empire might have fallen, but the Russians were still here, and their navy, too.
Such was the political impasse between Ukraine and Russia that no one was in charge. “We live in the present, a present that’s stuck in the past. You can’t get anything done—not even buy a train ticket, let alone get a phone line or a passport. Not unless you know someone, or have money to bribe them. There are Afghan-war heroes who’ve been waiting twelve years for a phone line! It was really hard when we came here—we couldn’t find work at all. And if we hadn’t met Volodya we’d never have managed.”
When the sea came in sight Volodya turned down a track and threaded his way between plots of land lush with flowers and fruit trees. In each, a little house had been cobbled together out of scavenged bits and pieces. The car pulled up in front of a couple of concrete huts with tin roofs, standing in a maze of weeds. Behind the fence, two dogs leaped around, barking in delight. Igor was standing, as upright in his bearing as ever, beaming at us. He was tanned and handsome. The mustaches which still curved down on either side of his mouth were still black and elegantly trimmed. But his hair was white now, and his front teeth were gone.
We sat and drank fruit juice in the shade of a pergola improvised out of army camouflage. After Volodya left, I looked inside the hut. It was simply furnished. To my surprise there was hardly a book to be seen. On Igor’s immaculately tidy desk there was a computer, and even an Internet connection. Thanks to Volodya, Igor said with a grin, they were producing a newspaper again—and they called it The Messenger, like the last one. This time they were distributing it free.
“As you can see, they’ve gone, the possessions. It seems we had to lose everything. One more time. We had to learn how to live all over again. The dogs taught us to get up at dawn and go to bed when it got dark. At one point we even had to sell our books—including the English ones. Just to stay alive. We lived on buckwheat porridge for a month. It’s funny—food was always something I’d taken for granted. Then we understood how little you need to live on. And how good it made us feel. So light and free!” Natasha’s words spurted out like uncorked champagne.
“If we’d stayed on in Novosibirsk we’d never have learned these things. Life was too easy. Yes, we were earning good money. We were living in this nice flat. We had everything a person could want. But there was nothing to do—nothing but drink kefir and listen to the air-conditioning. Besides, it wasn’t really honest, the money we were making there. Do you remember? Igor thought up this brilliant wheeze for advertising the houses the company was building. We set up this competition for children to draw My Dream House. We used the winners in our ad campaign. The paintings were wonderful. But it wasn’t honest—it looked as if the company was really going to build those dream houses. Which couldn’t have been further from the truth!”
I was sleeping in a hut across the yard from theirs. As I went to bed I noticed an unopened crate of vodka bottles stashed under a table in the corner of the room. So Natasha was still drinking. How come she was looking so happy, so healthy, then? How come they were publishing The Messenger, but giving it away? How were they earning any money? Nothing quite added up.
However, I had cleared up an old mystery. Over supper I asked Igor and Natasha about those rumors running around Novosibirsk when I last visited them. Rumors of a leak at the plutonium factory near their flat. Were they right? Yes, it was a bad leak, they admitted. Natasha, who was marinated in alcohol, was unaffected. But Igor, who did not drink, suffered badly. His teeth fell out soon after my visit.
After I turned off the light the sound of digging started up, quite close by, in the next-door garden. Now and then a torch flashed. On and on the digging went. What could they be doing, I wondered as I drifted off to sleep.
THEIRS NOT TO REASON WHY
When the cock crowed at dawn next day, the household was already stirring, to my astonishment. My friends had been confirmed night owls. The morning sun slanted through the window into the tin basin as I washed my face. My question about the moonlight digging made Natasha and Igor laugh: “They must have been burying something they’d stolen,” said Igor. “You’ll soon find nothing here’s the way it seems!”
After breakfast, Natasha and I set off for Sevastopol. The couple never left home together now, not since the burglary, when all their computer files relating to The Messenger were wiped. It was a warning: someone wanted them to know they were being watched. But Igor was not going to miss us: Volodya had left behind a fat file for him and he sat up late into the night reading it. There was a gleam in his eye; he had his material for the next edition of The Messenger.
Heavily laden with passengers, the communal taxi labored uphill toward the port. As we reached the summit, I could see why this southwesterly point of the Crimean peninsula was so bitterly fought over for the last two thousand years. The city stood on a series of headlands divided by profound inlets. They were superb natural harbors. Along their banks lay the rusting hulks of the old Soviet navy.
From one headland we boarded a ferry to the city center on the next. Natasha stood in the prow, wind in her hair: “How good it is to get out. I adore wandering.” Then she thought for a moment: “Yes, I know what you’re thinking—I hope I have mastered the restlessness. But I can’t be sure.”
In the sea-bright air the low, white-painted buildings of Sevastopol sparkled. Set back from tree-lined streets, garnished with neoclassical touches, they were punctuated by elaborate war memorials and unexpected glimpses of the sea. After the German army besieged it and left it in ruins in 1941 Sevastopol was awarded the status of a “hero city.” The architects from Leningrad rebuilt it on the old lines of the nineteenth-century naval garrison. Until the end of the Cold War it was closed to foreigners. Today, its dingy Soviet-style shops were still decked out with obsolete products.
There we met up with Volodya, who showed us around the city. With his old-fashioned military courtesy and self-deprecating competence Volodya was good company, but so unlike Natasha and Igor that it was hard to imagine how life had thrown them together.
We visited the huge stone rotunda which housed a panoramic depiction of another yearlong siege of the city, this time by France, Britain, and Turkey in the Crimean War of 1854–1855. There was little in the panorama’s account to remind us that this siege ended in defeat. Perhaps that was as it should be. History called it a defeat. But the city survived and remained a Russian stronghold, home to the imperial navy.
One civilization after another fought for mastery of this peninsula. The greatest of the caravan routes from China ended in Crimea. It was from this southwesterly anchorage that the cargo was dispatched to the markets of Europe. Under the Greeks, the city-state of Chersonesos flourished here. Today people were clambering over its fallen columns, carrying their picnics across its paved forums to the beach beyond. After the Greeks, the city fell to the Romans; then to the Huns, Byzantium, and Kievan Rus before becoming a Genoese trading colony. From one of these Genoese enclaves in Crimea, the city of Caffa, the Black Death entered Europe. The Mongols razed the city when they colonized the Eurasian landmass at the end of the thirteenth century. Long after their empire was broken they remained in their khanate in Crimea, continuing to harass Muscovy from the south. It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that the Russian army managed finally to dispel this threat.
By that time Russia was desperate for an outlet to the south. The empire needed to secure a southern port for trading, as well as a navy to protect itself. When Catherine the Great wrested Crimea away from the Turks in 1783 she had dreams of reviving the Byzantine Empire, with her grandson Constantine as emperor.
The Turks were not alone in being alarmed by those ambitions. The British and French had imperial territories to defend. So in the middle of the nineteenth century, all three powers came together to destroy Russia’s Crimean fleet once and for all.
A century and a half later the fleet was still there, if rusty. The big question now was whether Russia’s navy really would agree to leave Sevastopol peacefully in 2017. Despite its white paint and brave show, there was an air of tubercular romanticism about the city. Although a mere 1.5 percent of Crimea’s population spoke Ukrainian, this was Ukraine now. The Russian officers, the sailors, and the large supporting civilian workforce stranded here with their rusting hulks were pawns in the larger political game being played around them.
The city was virtually ungovernable, Volodya said. The last elected mayor died in mysterious circumstances. There had been no mayor at all since then. To the extent that it was being run at all, Ukraine’s President Kuchma and Russia’s Ministry of Defense did so directly, but pulling in opposite directions. In the vacuum in between, criminal gangs acted with impunity, running protection rackets, drugs and arms deals and murdering anyone who stood in their way.
When Volodya was brought here from the Afghan front the doctors pieced him together and he reengaged on this new battle-front. He served as the navy’s commissar in Sevastopol, in charge of welfare. Being honest and energetic, he was popular, far too popular for the town’s administration, who sacked him. So he ran instead for Sevastopol’s Duma. The election brought him so many votes that it looked inevitable he would become chair of the Duma. That was when his chief rival accused him of bribing voters with vodka. This was an unlikely charge, as Volodya did not drink. It was rendered even more implausible by the fact that he was accused of bribing voters in six different places at once, as 120 witnesses offered to testify. He was allowed neither to challenge the case in court, nor take office. As Igor warned me, nothing in Sevastopol was the way it seemed.
It was at this juncture that he happened to meet Igor and Natasha, whose fortunes were also at a low ebb. Igor, observing that Volodya needed a new power base, proposed that they start an organization to support the welfare of the “former people,” Russian ex-servicemen and-women. Many of them were now in desperate straits, needing help to adapt to civilian life. That was how the League of Officers came into being.
This unlikely relationship seemed to work. They made up for one another’s deficiencies. Volodya, for all his leadership qualities, lacked a higher education. My clever friends had more education between them than they knew what to do with. In that corrupted scene, they shared one vital quality, honesty.
The League of Officers now had some seven hundred members, and The Messenger was its newspaper. In fact, it was not really a paper, more a series of in-depth samizdat reports, a guerrilla publication which appeared irregularly, when something needed saying. Some five thousand copies would be published, given away free. This way, as Volodya explained, it could not be closed down by having crippling taxes imposed on it. Nor could Volodya be accused of taking bribes.
The Messenger played a significant role in the life of Sevastopol. It was the only publication not directly controlled by the local administration. Notionally, Volodya was its editor. Rumors about the paper were rife: it enjoyed powerful backing and was produced by a staff of thirty. In fact, it was entirely written by Igor and Natasha. Their names appeared nowhere, and they received no salaries for their work, only gifts. This was deliberate. Anonymity was their only protection. For since they had no institutional backing, they ran the danger of being casually eliminated if their identity leaked out.
• • •
Here in Crimea, the couple appeared finally to have found a place where their personal dramas were drowned out by the larger crisis going on around them. Yet experience made me cautious. There was always that dark force in Natasha that kept her dancing to a music the rest of us did not hear. That dance had carried her from the inner circle of the Soviet aristocracy to the status of penniless outcast. It had kept the two of them spinning around Russia like tops, full of fine intentions which did not materialize, unable to shake off their trouble, to settle down and become part of Russia’s new middle class.
The sun was long over the hills by the time Natasha and I arrived home. Igor was looking pleased with himself: in our absence, he had produced a draft of the new edition. The file Volodya left him contained a record of the correspondence between a local businessman, who was an ex-officer, and the head of the administration. The businessman wanted to supply gas to Sevastopol, supplanting the ancient Soviet system, which was in a state of collapse. The letters documented the bribes that the administration demanded of the businessman. He refused; he knew that if he gave in, he would be vulnerable to arrest at any time. From then on, the administration would be able to milk him dry.
My friends were excited: the new issue of The Messenger was going to be explosive. It was the first time a businessman was prepared to go public on the issue of bribes. Igor had spent the day substantiating the story; they had to be totally sure of their facts, for The Messenger was only as good as its reputation. Tonight, Natasha would rewrite Igor’s draft. It would be on the streets within a few days.
ONE SMALL MEND IN THE PAST
Natasha and I spent the afternoon traveling by ferry and bus around the promontory, exploring the battlefields of the Crimean War. We climbed up to an old Genoese fort on the gentle green hills above Balaklava. Down below, in the perfect little harbor with its graceful swan-necked outlet to the sea, a few old buildings on the waterfront were done up, and people were sitting out in the shade of umbrellas. But this idyllic, almost Mediterranean scene was spoiled by a rusting metal floating dock and a string of rusting naval vessels which hogged the waterfront. On the far side of the harbor you could see the gateway to the submarine base which the Soviets had hollowed out of the rock.
During the Crimean War it was from this little harbor that the British kept their troops supplied. Up that valley in front of us, under fire from Russian guns on either side, the Light Brigade galloped their horses in the charge commemorated in Tennyson’s famous poem:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
A disheveled man offered to sell me two buttons he dug up in the valley below; buttons from the coat of a British Hussar who had doubtless died there. “It is magnificent, but it is not war,” as the marshal of the French troops described the historic charge with unkind precision. By winning the battle, the Russians prevented us, the enemy, from advancing on Sevastopol from inland. But they had not saved the city for long.
Natasha was fun to explore with, an unending source of irreverent information. As we sat on the hillside, she expressed her delight at being free of the house, where she spent long days alone with Igor. So I made a suggestion: why not use her excellent language skills to organize English-language tours for schoolkids around the historical sites of Crimea? The idea appealed to her. But when we got home Igor took me aside and warned me off pursuing it: Natasha was not strong enough, he said. Fleetingly, I wondered what his motive was, but not for long. Igor was the one holding things together now.
When we first met, Igor was a caged bear, maddened, incapable of holding down a job. Natasha seemed like the resilient one. But perhaps that always was an illusion. This gifted woman was a Russian Orestes. She had taken on herself the role of scapegoat, carrier of the sins not just of her family, but of the herd. It was far too heavy for any one person to bear.
When Natasha and I reached home that evening, covered in fine white dust, we walked over the hill to bathe it off in the sea. The late-afternoon swimmers were leaving and the red sun danced on the water toward us. Up on those green hillsides despoiled by the concrete and metal graffiti of state socialism, Russia’s great oil companies were stealthily buying up the seafront, erecting forbidding, high-walled dachas, cementing today’s national tensions into Crimea’s future.
• • •
Leaving Crimea was proving difficult. Although I was a legitimate visitor, it transpired that I could not just go and buy myself a train ticket to Kiev: Volodya was going to have to “procure” a ticket for me. When he did, he refused to let me pay, which left me wondering how to repay his kindness.
I consulted Natasha and Igor. “It’s not things that he needs,” replied Igor. “But there’s something you could do—put the poor servicemen of our League of Officers in touch with some British organization.” I thought about this. Who to suggest? Language was one problem—few people in Crimea spoke English, and Russian speakers in my country were rare. British servicemen perhaps—but as Russia grew steadily more anti-Western, making that connection might be misconstrued. “You’re telling me there’s no one in England who’s interested in us?” Igor said provocatively. Nonsense, I told him, and told them about something I had never mentioned before. I described how we had organized Bookaid, how people from all over Britain had given us more than a million English-language books, which we had sent to the public libraries of Russia and its former republics. I admitted that I had not talked about it before because I found it too painful when people ascribed some ulterior motive to us. “Ulterior motive? Heaven forbid!” exclaimed Igor sarcastically. “You just wanted to teach us how to live!” Then I got really angry.
The silence that followed was long and awkward. Then Natasha moved the conversation onto safer ground: “I bet you can’t guess the most important thing you ever did in Marx. You probably don’t even remember—it was that evening you talked to my English pupils. That evening changed their lives—no, I’m serious. You treated them like equals. It made them see themselves differently. The encounter changed them. Because of you, because you kept their hope alive, they went on to study languages at Saratov University—all of them!”
I was grateful to Natasha for her intervention. In the past, when Igor was in attack-dog mode she would sit back and enjoy the spectacle. She was gentler now.
• • •
The following evening, when we were sitting in the shade of the camouflage, the couple finally started talking about themselves.
Natasha and I had just returned from visiting Inkerman, the site of another of the great battles of the Crimean War. There, at massive cost, the Russians staved off what might otherwise have been the allies’ easy conquest of Sevastopol. It took a year for our incompetently led, disease-ridden, bloody siege to prevail. At what price? In the end, the Russian fleet lay scuppered, their territorial advances were temporarily halted, as they were today. The French came away with what military glory there was; the Ottoman Empire was shored up for a little longer. But the war cost even more lives than the American Civil War. As for the British, the greatest gain was that the filth, disease, and terrible neglect of the wounded prompted Florence Nightingale and her pioneers to lay down sound principles for modern nursing.
When they first arrived in Crimea, Igor and Natasha lived in the village of Inkerman. It lay at the end of a deep inlet whose mouth was guarded by Sevastopol. Natasha and I took the ferry down the inlet from the “hero city,” along a lovely, rocky coastline despoiled by spent machinery, rusting hulks, abandoned floating docks, and gaping sewage pipes. “We loved it here,” said Natasha as we walked inland from the boat. “We lived in the dormitory settlement of a power station that was closing down. The buses had stopped—not profitable! So we had to walk everywhere—we developed these Herculean thighs. Our best friend was this great black dog called Jack. It was he who showed us around the Inkerman caves.”
Without Jack they would never have found the concealed entrance to a vast underground military complex which was tunneled out in the 1930s. The dog led them to it. “There it was, with all its own factories and houses. We thought it was abandoned at first, but we were wrong! There are people still living down there—whole communities, schools, and shops. We got chased out. People say there are vast arms dumps down there.”
Then, pointing up the hillside to a place where the smooth green slope broke up like a cubist composition, Natasha went on: “And that’s where they blew up another underground town in 1942, to stop it falling into German hands—it was still full of people, our own people! They gassed them to finish them off. And it was the Germans, the enemy, who set about rescuing them! Our people only admitted that three years ago. There are survivors still alive—we met some of them.” Yes, this had been a leitmotif of my travels—this daily reminder of the contempt of those with power for those without it.
“We used to spend whole days up here with Jack,” Natasha continued. “It’s been the animals who showed us the way, always the animals. One day when we were walking around here we came on this great big crow, far larger than any we’d ever seen. It didn’t fly away, just turned around and gazed at us. When we got home I looked up the crow in a book of mythology. It said that in cultures all over the world the crow means a meeting. What do you know? On the following day we met Volodya!”
Natasha and I walked to another cave community which Jack showed them. This one was in the high white chalk cliffs behind the village of Inkerman. Time and conquest had exposed the interior of layer after layer of eroded caves on the pale cliff face. Here and there in sheltered corners frescoes still clung to the rock. People had clearly been living in these caves since long before recorded history. But the visible traces of habitation dated back to the eighth and ninth centuries, when icon-loving monks from Byzantium had fled the iconoclasts and taken refuge here. Following Jack’s path, we walked to the entrance to the catacombs, but it was sealed off now with a metal gate.
Around the corner a recent breach blasted in the rock led to a white quarry. The remains of searchlights betrayed that it was once worked by the Soviet slave army, part of the Gulag. I went into a small whitewashed working church to light candles for the victims. Natasha waited outside: “I won’t come in—I feel awkward in church. Don’t know why.”
Later, when Natasha was telling Igor about our day, he interrupted her at this point: “I know why you wouldn’t go in,” he jeered. “It’s because you’re cursed.”
“It’s true!” Natasha agreed cheerfully. But the way she said it made me hope that however much she once felt cursed, she no longer did: it was a joke now, if an edgy one.
“Yes,” she went on, “Crimea’s been miraculous for us. It’s taught us how to live. And each step of the way it’s been the animals who helped us. That black dog Jack was the first. He was wonderful—he used to come to our house and scratch on the door, inviting us to come out and play with him. Then he got terribly ill and his owner had to put him down. That same day—it must have been ten in the morning—we heard this scratching at the door and we said, “It must be Jack.” I opened the door and there was nothing there. I found out next day that he’d died at that time in the morning. His owner said the same thing’d happened to her.” She paused. “After that how could you fail to believe that animals have souls?”
“And it was dolphins who cured Natasha of the drink,” Igor took over. “One day I came home and found her lying on the floor in a pool of blood. I really thought she was done for—”
“I’d got blind drunk and fallen down, gashing my head and nearly taking out an eye …”
“Volodya came and took her to hospital.”
“What about that crate of vodka then?” I finally asked the question.
“Ah, that—I keep it there as a warning.”
It was Volodya who took her to the dolphins. They were once part of the Soviet navy’s intelligence operation. Most had been sold off. The rest were going through a lean time, as they always lived off frozen fish, and now there were none. The woman who trained them went around collecting money for them. She got them working again, too, this time not to make war but to heal people.
“There was one in particular,” Natasha went on. “I’d hang on to him so tightly that it must have been very painful for him. But he didn’t object—he’d swim off with me around his neck, and I could feel his power—”
“Their trainer’s the one who said to us: ‘People think of the relationship between man and animals as being like a pyramid, with man at the top. But you should turn that pyramid on its side—that’s how it really is.’ ”
Natasha interrupted: “That’s what we’ve come to learn here—to take animals seriously; to live with them, to live with plants.”
“Maybe that’s where you’re one step ahead of us,” I reflected. “After all, communism and capitalism were ever only variations on the same theme. In both of them man’s on top of the pyramid. Capitalism may have proved stronger, but it may be doomed too because of just that—our arrogance about the natural world. Look at climate change. There’s a chance we’ll get through, because the market’s inventive. But if we have an economic collapse it’ll be much worse for us. At least you’ve learned how to live with a minimum.”
“Last winter the mice got into our clothes.” Natasha laughed. “They ate only the very best of them.”
“Only the very finest wool, for their nest.” Igor took over. “They turned up their noses at the rest.”
“The wise mice,” Natasha added. “We had to learn not to mind about things. Yes, animals have been our teachers—we had a lot to learn. We were emotional cripples. Take Pasha for example.” Pasha was their mongrel. “He’s the one who taught Igor that he can’t do anything with his head alone—that he has to learn how to love.”
The sun had dropped behind the hill by the time Natasha and I took Pasha out for a walk. It was magic hour and the sharp outline of a pale crescent moon hung in the violet southern sky. We walked over the open grassland to the wooded hill and looked down over the coast. “As soon as I saw this place I thought, yes, I could live here,” she said. “I recognized it, too. I used to have this recurring dream: there was the sea, rocks, and a bay. I’d never seen the sea either. But that dream came back again and again. When we arrived here I recognized it at once.” She paused. “The situation here’s bad—but at least there’s work for us to do.”
The air was balmy with the smell of growing things. Each footfall released the scent of bruised wormwood. All along the little river at the foot of the hill the frogs were singing. In this half-light the Soviet detritus of concrete and rusting metal that scarred the landscape was barely visible. “The Greeks believed that the gates to heaven and hell were in Crimea. Well, they were right—they are. Everything that God has made is heavenly, and everything that man made is hell,” Natasha murmured.
As we walked we were greeted by a red-bearded Tatar shepherd. Evdan was grazing his sheep. He was just back from Kiev, he told Natasha with an enormous smile; he became betrothed there. His fiancée was longing to come, he said. This was a lonely place to be a serious Muslim, for few of Crimea’s Tatars were interested in religion, but it was even worse in Kiev. All this land was once owned by his grandfather, Evdan explained. That was before Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars en masse to central Asia. Evdan was an educated man, a mechanic by trade. But when he started taking his religion seriously, he decided to become a shepherd to keep out of harm’s way. Walking the land every day with his sheep, it felt like his again.
Dark fell before we reached home. We were noisily greeted by little Musya. Natasha brought out fruit juice and we sat out in the courtyard under the crescent moon. “When Evdan and I started talking,” Igor began, “we found that though we had nothing whatever in common, we’d come to the same conclusion: that the world was so multifaceted, so infinitely beyond our comprehension that all we could do was to concentrate on living as decently, as ethically as possible, and encouraging our neighbors to do the same.”
• • •
“Susan, you remember when we first met?” Natasha went on after a long silence. “We were expecting the worst.”
“Yes, you were pretty unpleasant that night.”
“In the old days you, the West, were a fairy tale,” she continued. “A land where everyone was decent and true. Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, we trod them in our dreams.”
Igor interrupted: “But by the time we met you the foreigners had started coming, and we’d found out that they were just the same little jerks as us, cheap businessmen who despised us, who simply weren’t interested in who we were. We’d been brought up to believe that the collective was everything; that there was no such thing as individuality. That’s why we’re all so riddled with inferiority complexes. And now it turns out that there isn’t anything but the individual; that all governments are equally awful, that there’s only this fundamental principle, the same in religions the world over.”
“This principle you can arrive at in so many ways,” Natasha concluded, “through nature, culture, or education.”
• • •
Natasha and I were waiting for the train to Kiev when she asked me: “What do you think? Is it going to get better here? Or is this just a glimpse of what the rest of the world’s going to be like after everything collapses?” How blithely I would have reassured her if she had asked me that at the start of my travels. Now I just did not know.
Volodya must have come by my ticket through a contact in the FSB. For I found that I was sharing a compartment in the sleeper with a friendly couple in the secret service who assumed I worked for some arcane part of the Organization. I did not disabuse them.
• • •
When I opened my notebook out fell an article I had found about the Crimean War. It was from Flag of the Motherland, the mouthpiece of the Russian armed forces in Sevastopol. It proposed that we, the British, were still out to punish Russia for our defeat in Crimea, because the war had “destroyed a significant proportion of the genetic bank of their aristocracy.” I was vastly amused when I read it. But Natasha and Igor ticked me off: I must take it seriously, because of what it had to say about the way Russia’s Ministry of Defense was thinking.
When the train reached Kiev, I rang Natasha and Igor to find that, news having got around of the impending edition of The Messenger, the businessman who refused to pay bribes had got permission to supply gas to the town. Natasha and Igor were jubilant. “You’re our good angel!” said Natasha. “After you left we sat down and had a good cry. Now it’s raining so everything is in mourning.”
“I love you both,” I told them.
“No, you can’t love us—we’re revolting. Revolting—but redeemable.”
My visit left me feeling deeply connected to Natasha and Igor, and proud of them: at enormous cost to themselves they had slain the dragons of their past. In the course of doing so they had mended one small piece in their country’s torn past. The path they had chosen was fraught with difficulty, for Crimea was too important both to Ukraine and to Russia for either to surrender control. But whatever happened, Natasha and Igor would not lose their moral compass, as Natasha believed her father had done. They would always be on the side of the powerless.