We’re not a gloomy, backward-bound place like America, thankfully!
I was fifteen and in Moscow over the winter break from high school, staying with my mother’s cousin and her family. Those three—the cousin, a neuropathologist; her husband, a nuclear physicist; and their son, Marat, one year older than me—had been among my most favorite people in the world for as long as I could remember myself.
One night a sinewy old man of a stealthy, vaguely animalistic bearing, with faded icy-blue eyes, bushy gray beard, and tight-skinned tanned bald head materialized on the threshold of their cozy new three-room apartment on the tenth floor of a modern midtown high-rise near the Prospect of Peace Metro station, bearing across his shoulder a voluminous rugged burlap bundle inside of which, as soon as he had put it down and untied its frayed leather straps, there presented itself to view a giant, headless, humpbacked smoked red fish, as rigid as a rolled-up wall carpet—gorbusha, or Kamchatka salmon, as Marat told me in a whispered aside. “A little personal souvenir for you, good people,” the old man—whose name turned out to be Lev Konstantinovich—said in a strange, uncertain, lowing voice, smiling mirthlessly, showing a mouthful of uneven dark metallic teeth while his eyes remained sharply vigilant.
Judging by the warmth with which Marat and his parents had greeted his—clearly unanticipated—appearance in their apartment, he was someone they’d known and liked for years—and because of that, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to him, also.
Amid all the good cheer and gladsome commotion and oohing and aahing over the glorious fish in the cramped hall, Marat’s father quickly explained to me that Lev Konstantinovich was his uncle—his late father’s brother—who for the past many years had been living in the remote corner of the vast Kamchatka peninsula eleven time zones away, out in prehistoric wilderness, hunting and fishing in total isolation—and only rarely serving as a guide to groups of visiting volcanologists from across the Soviet Union and generally being self-sufficient and taking the fast-flowing river of life one unbroken instant at a time—except for the few days out of every year when he would come to Moscow, always on the spur of the moment, to pay visits to his grown son and some of his old friends there—and also to stop by his late wife’s grave.
“And this,” he added, half-turning to Lev Konstantinovich and pointing at me, “is our relative from Leningrad. My wife’s kinfolk’s son. We have relatives in Leningrad, as you may know.”
The old man fixed his unblinking gaze on me, for a fleeting second investing my insignificant being with a greater intensity of enigmatic scrutiny than it possibly could merit, when a shadow of wistful recognition seemed to pass over his harsh, unyielding features. “Ah, Leningrad!” he said dreamily, in the same strange, distant, discordant voice, haltingly unsure of itself. “The most beautiful city in the world, or so they say—and the most terrible one, too, according to other people. I’m told I used to go there myself on occasion, in my life as another person, but I certainly haven’t been there once since my death, so I have no basis for any independent judgment on the matter.”
“Tomorrow, I will no longer be here.”
After those words, unsurprisingly, a momentary silence fell over the hall.
“Well!” Marat’s father exclaimed at length with a short laugh, bringing his hands together and rubbing them animatedly. “Enough standing around, I say! Let’s go have you settled—in Marat’s room, this time. The boys will sleep in the living room, which will be fine by them, since they like talking late into the night, anyway. How long are you here for, uncle Lev?”
“Just one night,” Lev Konstantinovich replied in a distracted manner, staring off into space. “Tomorrow, I will no longer be here.”
“Oh, nonsense!” Marat’s mother said, mock-frowning. “You’ll stay for as long as you need to stay. Our house… well, it is not our house, strictly speaking, of course, but it is just as much yours as it is ours, and I’ve told you so before. You’re safe here. We’re your friends. The most loving and reliable friends you have!… Well, but really—enough talking! Let’s get you something to eat first. When was the last time you had a morsel of food in your mouth—yesterday? You must be famished, hungry like a wolf.”
“A wolf!” Leonid Konstantinovich repeated with a crooked grin. “Wolves are fine people. They have lots of inner resources.”
When the three of them went into Marat’s room, which was adjacent to the kitchen, he and I bugged our eyes out at each other in pretend horror and, our palms tight on our mouths, burst with suppressed laughter. “What was that? Who is this old guy?” I asked, giggling. “He seems nice enough, sure, but—what the hell was he carrying on about not coming to Leningrad since his death? That was creepy.”
Pressing a finger to his lips, Marat motioned toward the living room with his head. We tiptoed out of the hall.
“Lev Konstantinovich—well, he’s an interesting case,” Marat said, once we were seated on the large gray leatherette living-room couch on which I slept. “He is my grandfather’s—dad’s father’s—older brother, like dad just said. You’ve never met my dad’s father, and I don’t really remember him, either, because he died, of a heart attack, when I was too little to retain any memories. He also was a physicist, like my dad—and so, too, was his brother, Leonid Konstantinovich. Apparently, however, while my grandfather was only a moderately talented physicist, his older brother was quite remarkably gifted—a brilliant mind, practically a genius, one of the brightest young stars of Soviet science back at the time, Pyotr Kapitsa’s favorite mentee. Surely you’ve heard or read about Pyotr Kapitsa? Leonid Konstantinovich followed Kapitsa—I just like repeating that name: Kapitsa!—to England and he also worked with Rutherford, the famous inventor, alongside Kapitsa; yes, and he even married an English woman there and had a son with her. In other words, by all indications, he seemed intent on staying in England for the duration, especially after he failed to follow Kapitsa back to Moscow in mid-thirties. But then—and this is where the story gets murky—in the end, he did decide to return, despite definitely having ill forebodings about it, closer to the forties, after receiving a cablegram from his younger brother, apparently—dad’s dad, right?—to the effect that their father was in rapidly declining health and wanted to see his older son one last time, which might or might not have been the truth of the situation, if you know what I mean… and, well, just as he had feared, he was arrested almost immediately upon his arrival in Moscow, as a supposed British spy, and a few days later sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in a prison camp, somewhere in the Magadan or Kolyma region—and that was a relatively lucky outcome for him, too, according to my dad, given the severity of his alleged crime, for which the standard punishment was a bullet in the back of the head—but was returned to freedom, re-hab-ili-tated, in the parlance of the era, after serving out only eighteen years of that quarter-century sentence of his, due to Khrushchev’s amnesty or something like that… A fairly tragic destiny, objectively speaking. But then, on the other hand…” Cutting himself off, he gave me a serious, probing sidelong look.
“I’ve heard a little about similar stories,” I told him cautiously. “A few times, well, on the enemy voices on my parents’ VEF-Spidola radio, when they were listening to it late at night in their bedroom, as they often do, and thought no one else could hear it and, for some inexplicable reason, there was no usual howling background noise from those frequency-suppressing KGB jamming installations, you know, that particular night. They were talking about Solzhenitsyn, of course. But I only could catch a few scattered phrases. Some of my father’s friends, too, said certain things about Stalin, sort of obliquely, at dad’s birthday party last year, in low voices—mentioning prison camps, the word Gulag, mass executions, again in connection with Solzhenitsyn. Of course, none of them had read whatever it was he wrote, which kind of makes one wonder. But whatever. But then again, my grandfather, whom you know well, he still believes Stalin was a great man—although, of course, he’s an Old Bolshevik, who always adored Stalin, throughout his entire life, so his words on this subject should be taken with a serious grain of salt—and so, too, does our high-school history teacher, Ninel Sidorovna: she also claims Stalin was a great man and heroic leader, the best ruler we ever had, who took over the levers of power when Russia was a land of horse-drawn wooden plows and left it as one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers, even though she does admit that some certain unfortunate accidental mistakes had been made indeed during Stalin’s rule, in terms of the limited number of unjustified imprisonment and executions Khrushchev spoke about in his secret speech at that Party congress all those years ago. But frankly, I don’t know whether to believe her or not, either. I have my doubts. I don’t like it when innocent people get thrown in prison or killed by mistake. That doesn’t sit right with me. If Stalin was such a great leader, how did he allow for that terrible stuff to happen? I don’t know, Marat. To be honest, I think he might’ve been a bad man. Stalin, that is. I do. What if Solzhenitsyn wrote the truth? I…”
Marat was speaking in fierce, shouting whisper now, his eyes aglow, nostrils flared.
“Our history teacher says the same thing,” Marat interrupted me with alacrity. “She also tells us Stalin was a great man—and I believe her. Why shouldn’t I? Seriously, why shouldn’t I? This is our country, the Soviet Union we’re talking about here—the society of ultimate justice, one based on our common shared faith in the essential goodness of the human nature, to put it perhaps a bit loftily! I don’t mean to sound like the Pravda newspaper. But you know what I’m saying. I’m being sincere now! We’re not a gloomy, backward-bound place like America, thankfully! We are the good guys of the world, even if not everyone in the world realizes this yet. But everyone in the world respects, or at the very least fears us! So yes, absolutely, I do believe Stalin was a great man, all those unfortunate excesses everyone knows about notwithstanding, because our present superpower status ultimately, to a giant degree, is his deserve! And I’ll tell you more, while we’re at it: I for one have a bit of a hard time believing 100 percent that with some rare exceptions, anyone in our country, even during the understandably severe Stalin era, could be arrested, much less executed, totally and completely without a reason, for having done absolutely nothing wrong at all! I find it difficult to accept that notion! Regardless of what Khrushchev—who probably had his own personal ulterior motives for tarnishing Stalin’s reputation—had said in that vaunted secret speech. Regardless, all the more so, of what that traitor Solzhenitsyn may have written! No, no! I won’t! There had to have been something, some shadow of a reason, however possibly unintentional or tangential, in the absolute majority of instances! There is always something! Always! Inevitably! Some small line of wobble, some minor area of mental rot! Cannot not be!” Marat was speaking in fierce, shouting whisper now, his eyes aglow, nostrils flared.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued in a more placid tone after a short pause to catch his breath. “I’m not suggesting Lev Konstantinovich necessarily was an actual British spy or anything. But… All I’m saying is… Oh, who the hell knows! Why are we even talking about all this difficult, confusing stuff?” He chuckled, shaking his head. “What are we even arguing about?”
“Well, I suppose, one could say that at this point, the main difference between us is that you believe your history teacher while I don’t think I believe mine,” I said, also forcing a smile.
“It would seem that way, yes,” Marat agreed, “But that’s neither here nor there, really. I was telling you about Lev Konstantinovich. Like I said, he is a curious character. Obviously, he never talks about any parts of his life at all—at least, not in my presence—so the little I know comes from my parents who, as you can imagine, don’t like talking about him in my presence either. This then is the condensed version of what I’ve been able to piece together: his English wife, knowing, or sensing to the point of certainty that she was about to be arrested next, as his probable accomplice, committed suicide soon after he’d been taken in, by slashing her wrists in a bathtub. His son—still very small at the time—was placed in a special orphanage for children of the enemies of the people, where he almost immediately started experiencing an array of psychological problems, and as a result was subsequently transferred to a mental institution, his permanent residence ever since. He doesn’t know his father, nor does he even care to find out whether or not he ever had one—and Lev Konstantinovich, because he has no memories whatsoever of his life prior to his arrest, which memory loss occurred presumably due to some sort of mental trauma-related syndrome, does not remember his son either, although he makes believe he does, so as not to upset the people who keep telling him he has a son. As you saw in a glimpse tonight, he’s convinced that his real, original self, the one he was born with, has been dead for many years, and he’s been existing ever since as someone else, with some other man’s wiped-clean brain having been transplanted into his skull. Sounds insane, I know. But—there you have it. Here’s what I believe he believes happened to him: one day, at the logging site in the taiga outside his prison camp, he received a massive blow to his head from a falling treetop and went into a coma, turning as good as dead. However, instead of finishing him off on the spot, right then and there, amid the taiga permafrost, with the frozen butts of their rifles, as they normally would do in such cases, the camp guards—presumably, on their superiors’ latest directive, had his immobile and insensate body brought back to the camp’s medical ward, wherefrom without delay it was transferred, by lorry and then by an NKVD airplane, to some super-secret medical-research facility, as part of some super-secret experiment, his permanently concussed brain was then removed from his head and fed to the dogs, and the new one, harvested from some other unfortunate comatose prisoner, was put instead into the echoing chamber of his cranium: a brand-new pre-owned brain, and a completely empty one, with all of its previous contents having been expunged by a super-powerful electromagnetic field… or some such thing—and that’s when he believes he was born again, this time as a perfectly blank slate of a human being, with a brain infinitely more vacant than that of a newborn child, containing no past memories whatsoever. And that’s it, you know. That’s his story, to the best of my understanding. That’s his predicament, in a nutshell: a man with no past. Sounds like an Alexander Dumas novel or something, right? He doesn’t recognize anyone he used to know before going into a coma that ill-starred day in taiga—literally, no one. Not a person, not a soul. Crazy, huh? He feels zero affinity with anyone, cares for no one. He simply is incapable of that. He just pretends, puts on a show—and does that rather half-heartedly, indifferently, too—of actually recognizing those he is told by a small umber of other people that he must recognize when meeting them for the first time or even the second or the third one. The only live creature he trusts for real, imaginably, would have to be his dog, or maybe a few dogs, up there in Kamchatka—the beautiful and almost unpopulated, enormous prehistoric land of wild bears and volcanoes, the land of my dreams, where he’d moved immediately after his release from that prison camp, or wherever it was he ended up being released from, a dozen or so years ago. There, as my dad mentioned to you, he stays as far away as possible from any human presence, and for as long as possible. But as you’ve heard also, once a year, without fail—but also without any advance warning—he travels, somehow, to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the peninsula’s only real city, and gets on a plane to Moscow there. Once here, he always comes to our apartment first, for some reason, and spends one night with us, after which he just disappears, vanishes without a trace—until next year, that is. What exactly he does here, in Moscow, is not fully clear. He probably goes to see some people whom he doesn’t remember to a lesser degree than others, and he likely makes quick, perfunctory stops at the psychiatric clinic where his son is kept, and at the grave of the woman who, according to other people, those claiming to know his dead self’s past, used to be his wife. Poor old guy… Well, now you know almost as much as I do about him. Insane, huh? Just imagine—or maybe don’t, actually—what it must feel like, to be him. Damn unimaginable, I’d say.”
“Unimaginable,” I echoed.
We sat in silence for a while, in the dark. The ceaseless flow of trucks and automobiles along the Prospect of Peace ten floors below manifested itself in a number of muted multicolored splashes of light shifting slowly, languorously on the dusky low-slung stucco ceiling in random, kaleidoscopic patterns. It was a comforting sight to behold.
I loved being in Moscow! I loved being in my relatives’ cozy new apartment! As a child, I’d used to love their old apartment, too—the one they and our other Moscow relatives had occupied until several years earlier. Long and narrow, but also as wide in places as the delta of some medium-sized seasonal river and consisting of a seemingly variable number of variously shaped old rooms and a plethora of little nooks and crannies and other potential hideouts, it was full of heavy, creaky oaken furniture and it was suffused with quiet dusky brown air, situated in a looming century-old gray stone building a few hundred meters away, amid the dense maze of the ancient Sretenka area’s crooked side-streets. Some of the happiest, warmest memories of my early childhood, sweetly imprecise yet also starkly vivid, were connected to that beautiful old apartment.
Moscow! I loved the sprawl and the self-assured power of its broad avenues, always thronged with purposeful-looking, historically optimistic Soviet people; and the small, homey old wooden houses with ornately carved window shutters lining its snowbound downtown alleyways! I loved the sheer bold sweep of its panoramic vistas, and the heady sense I always had in Moscow, of belonging to the most important and hopeful place in the entire world! I loved the smell of Moscow snow in the morning—much crisper, more redolent of cold Russian apples than the damp gray sea-bound exhaust of Leningrad’s endless wintriness.
Once, when I was little, no more than five or six years of age, my grandfather, an Old Bolshevik, who still lived in Moscow at the time, took me to a place called The Bird Market, not far seemingly from the city center, where all kinds of animals were sold, not just birds: kittens and chickens, puppies and lizards, grass snakes and goldfish, piglets and baby goats, bear and wolf cubs, ponies and butterflies, beetles and dragonflies, miniature wolverines, Siberian saber-toothed cows and carnivorous lambs from the Urals, amphibian squirrels and tree-dwelling sturgeons, mice-sized lice and taiga forest crawfish! Noticing that I was on the verge of passing out from too much emotional overstimulation and wishing to calm me down, grandfather bought me a little black baby chicken then, whom, inexplicably, I named Edouard, and we proudly brought it, in a Skorokhod shoebox it came with, to my grandparents’ apartment in Moscow suburbs—in a small, quiet little town called Moose Island. Grandmother, the local school’s principal and biology teacher, got angry when she saw the chicken in the apartment, because she knew it would bite the dust in no time flat—as indeed it did wind up doing, sadly, despite all the love I showered it with over those two days it was with us, leaving me feeling bad, heartsick at the thought that my love had not been enough of a reason for Edouard to keep on living. Memories…
I liked the slightly pharmaceutical, musty odor of my grandparents’ two-room Moose Island apartment. It put me in the mind of something I knew I’d never known yet still knew intimately. It was a poignant feeling. On the mantelpiece in their living room, a marble owl sat, blinking its burning red electric eyes: it was a nightlight.
On another occasion, grandfather took me to the VDNKh—the Exhibition of Achievements of the People’s Economy—where I soon became hopelessly confused by the boundless crowds of Soviet citizenry from every corner of our one-sixth of the world’s landmass, and by the sheer majestic, cosmic scope of the Soviet economy’s relentless invincibility, as well as by the vertiginous height and sweep and the implacable steely resolve of that iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman sculpture, by the famous sculptor Vera Mukhina; I started to cry, disconsolate, fairly dissolving into tears; to soothe and comfort me, to make me stop my embarrassing and inappropriate behavior in that most pointedly optimistic of Soviet locales, grandfather bought me a memorably delicious pork shashlik on a stick from a wooden kiosk just outside the spacious pavilion with the largest and heaviest sow in the world—just an immensely, mind-blowingly humongous, world’s largest Soviet sow, gloriously resplendent and mountain-like in her dirty pinkness, luxuriating on her side, since she had long ceased being able to stand on her feet, in a mess of straw and mud beneath a giant hammer-and-sickled Soviet banner.
I loved the pungent aroma of Marat’s father’s expensive filterless Kazbek papirosy, which came in a beautiful cardboard pack featuring on its cover the dark silhouette of a horseman in a large disheveled papakha hat galloping across a mountain ridge, with the white-topped Kazbek rising majestically into boundless cobalt-blue sky in the background; Marat’s father stuffed the hollow airshaft of each papirosa with a wad of cotton, to diminish the amount of smoke’s potentially pernicious components entering his lungs. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be old enough to start smoking those sophisticated papirosy myself. Sometimes he also smoked Herzegovina Flor, which happened to be made with Stalin’s favorite sort of pipe tobacco. Marat’s father sat in old, plush grandfather’s armchair in the living room, next to a set of bookcases, and, puffing away contentedly, read one of the many detective novels collected on those shelves: Georges Simenon and Agatha Christie, Arkady Adamov, the Vayner Brothers, Lev Ovalov, Yulian Semyonov, Stanislav Rodionov, Nikolai Leonov, and scores of others.
I loved everything about Moscow! The solemn grandeur of the Red Square at sunset hour, the Kremlin’s stern blood-tinged beauty, the ominously melodious Kremlin Courants, the never-dormant little illumined square window of onetime Stalin’s study, according to rumor, up at the top of the darkly menacing Spasskaya Tower; Lenin’s Tomb and the surprisingly small wax-skinned black-clad Lenin, supine inside large bullet-proof glass cube—I loved it all! I loved the merry New Year’s Tree children’s gala at the recently opened Kremlin Palace of Congresses I went to with my Old Bolshevik grandfather, and the world-famous Moscow Circus with the sunny clown and world’s most lovable man, Oleg Popov… Everything!
How I loved them, in my imagination—those yellow- and blue-lighted Moscow windows in the dark, in the tender, gentle, teeming Moscow night!
I loved, too—already as an adolescent, with my heart full of romantic stirrings and painfully keen premonition of love—the beautifully sad, suffering, wistfully light and tender, softly velveteen, ironically pensive voice of the great Bulat Okudzhava, the idol of the Soviet intelligentsia, Vladimir Vysotsky’s only near-equal as the Soviet Union’s preeminent guitar-strumming balladeer, on Marat’s parents’ magnitofon, or on the one in our family’s apartment back in Leningrad, the bulky and extra-heavy Dnieper. Specifically, with regard to Bulat Okudzhava, I loved his Moscow-themed songs: one about the little Moscow ant who needed someone to idolize and pray to, and also one about the last trolley bus coursing slowly and tirelessly through the gentle velveteen Moscow night, to make sure all the lovelorn souls stranded in the city after hours would get home safely in the end; and the one about Lyonka Korolyov, the “king” of the old Arbat city area, a street-smart noble-hearted boy felled by a Nazi bullet, like millions of his peers, young boys like him, before his life had even had a chance properly to begin. Okudzhava’s floating, ironically sad, weightless voice was, to me, the very audial exhalation of Moscow. Tears of joy and longing rose in my eyes, blurring my vision, and my heart raced anxiously in the hollow of my chest, when I listened to him in the dark—always in the dark, late in the evening, in the soft kind night alive with yellow and blue lighted windows, either in Leningrad or in Moscow, but especially in Moscow, the moveable feast of my childhood and adolescence.
Oh, those lovely, warm, cozy Moscow windows, memorialized unto all-USSR collective awareness, by the celebrated composer Tikhon Khrennikov and the famed lyrical poet Mikhail Matusovsky in their eponymous song, “Moscow Nights,” performed on the radio typically by the beautifully voiceless yet soulful Vladimir Troshin, who sounded, somehow, like an old friend of all the Soviet people at once: how I loved them, in my imagination—those yellow- and blue-lighted Moscow windows in the dark, in the tender, gentle, teeming Moscow night! There, beyond those windows, lived and loved and suffered and rejoiced and moved about aimlessly and dreamed abstractly and held hands for hours and stared off into space blankly the regular Muscovites: the ordinary Soviet people just like me, those very little working ants of Soviet life—except, of course, I was from Leningrad.
O Leningrad, my hometown, Soviet Union’s self-styled cultural capital and the heroic site of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution! How I loved you also, world’s most beautiful city!.. But then, enough exclaiming.
As kids, Marat and I sometimes would argue ferociously and at length about which city, Moscow or Leningrad, was better, mightier, lovelier, and offered its citizens more of an abiding reason to count themselves lucky by calling it home. We would be hurling the most ridiculously overblown insults at each other’s wonderful city during those spats. On a few occasions, we even came to blows! How silly we were then!
“You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all,” Dostoyevsky writes in Notes from the Underground. “If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.”
O the soft, comforting glow of Moscow windows in the night! O Moscow, the warrantor of my wellbeing, the unwitting guarantor of my eternal salvation!
“But why, Marat—why in the world did he decide to come back to the Soviet Union?” I asked, unexpectedly even to myself, puncturing the comfortable silence between us.
“Who? Where? What do you mean?” Marat asked distantly, still submerged apparently in his own private thoughts.
“Lev Konstantinovich!” I said quietly. “I can’t understand it: why did he agree to return to the Soviet Union from England? Didn’t he know what would or very likely might happen to him there… here, that is? Especially with a wife from a capitalist country? I mean… It almost sounds as though he were deliberately committing suicide, along with his whole family—which is not not cool, if you ask me. He shouldn’t have ruined the lives of his wife and child too, while willfully demolishing his own. That was not a manly thing to do.”
“Why, what a question!” Marat replied in an astonishment voice. “Are you serious? Are you not the true son of our Motherland? Well, I know you are, obviously, but really… How could he not have come back? Think about it! Even if he did know, or suspect—let’s just posit that, for argument’s sake—that he might be arrested upon arrival, because he might have sensed this was a ruse of some sort, this urgent request for him to return, a trap laid for him against their will by his heavy-hearted relatives, presumably on the organs’ orders, in the form of the fake sad news about his father’s supposed grave illness, which actually might have been real, too—still, even with all that in mind, this was his beloved Motherland… his sternly loving Fatherland! Sometimes you really surprise me. There is no choice in such matters, even when technically there would seem to be one—no choice as to where you are going to be born; and once you’re born somewhere, you belong to that place forever… if that place happens to be the Soviet Union, that is, of course, rather than somewhere in the capitalist world, for which latter one can have no loyalty, feel no fealty, because it clearly doesn’t give much of a damn about one, either. But in our case—we, the Soviet people… We are Soviet people! You cannot not come back to the Soviet Union, ever, no matter what. It’s as simple as that. It’s just the way things are! No matter the consequences! What is meant to happen to you, is going to happen, regardless. Let the falls chip where they may, or… what have you. That’s life for you. Our Soviet life. Deal with it! Bite the old bullet! Accept it! Born in the USSR—USSR’s forever. Born in the USSR—you will die in the USSR, too. Period. End of discussion.”
In the silence, I could hear his breathing, and the beating of my own heart.
“I hear you, and that makes me feel scared,” I told him.
Late at night, lying quietly on my back with my hands behind my head on the living-room couch, under soft cotton blanket, in friendly, festive darkness, and feeling strangely unsettled, to the point of being unable to sleep, I gazed at the milky swirls of stucco in the dusky screen of low-slung living room ceiling, with its random pattern of slow-moving, shape-shifting, muted multicolored refracted shadows of automobile lights from far below, down on the never-dormant Prospect of Peace. No outside sound reached my ears.
“Marat!” I called cautiously, in a hissing whisper. “Are you asleep, Marat?”
He shifted on his screechy, flimsy fold-out cot a couple meters away, in the impenetrable dark. “Mmm… What?” he said, in a hoarse, faraway voice. “Sleeping, yes. Asleep…”
“Marat, do you remember how, five years ago maybe, all of us, my family and yours, in two cars, drove out to see first Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, and then Turgenev’s Spasskoye Lutovinovo, near Orel?” I kept on whispering. “Wasn’t that an amazing trip? It took us three days to make our way to those places from Moscow and back, remember? It was summer, and it was hot. My parents and my little brother and I were in my dad’s research-institute assistant’s Pobeda, and the assistant was driving it himself, his name was Edouard, like that chicken’s; and you were in your dad’s Moskvich, of course, with him driving. Remember? And one of those nights we stayed at a roadside inn, not far from Yasnaya Polyana, and it felt really strange, to be staying at that place. You must remember. It was my first time spending the night in an inn, and yours also. We were sharing a room.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Marat mumbled again. “Well, yeah… I do. Why? What the… Let me sleep.”
“We couldn’t sleep, you and I, we were so excited, and so wired,” I went on quickly. “So we started talking about all kinds of scary things, just for the hell of it, including what would be the most awful, torturously painful way to die, right? And you brought up Giordano Bruno and Jan Hus, who were burned—burned!—at the stake. Burned! God! Remember? And Joan of Arc, too! Oh! And you told me then also how, when his death sentence was read out to Giordano Bruno, for his refusal to renounce his conviction that the Earth revolved around the Sun, he said to his judges, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.” Those words, I was completely bowled over by them. Such composure! Me, I would’ve just collapsed on the floor, in his place, in a weeping heap of flesh… had I been told I’d be burned alive at the stake. I’d have died on the spot, of the sheer excess of horror—well, hopefully. And when an old woman, in medieval Prague, added an extra handful of straw to the pyre upon which Jan Hus was about to be burned, he said, rolling his eyes heavenwards, almost ironically and in Latin, the dead language of his god, “O holy simplicity!” Remember? I imagined all that just then, that whole thing—my own being tied to a pole, naked, and probably gagged, so that my piercing screams would not upset too much, instead of entertain, the assembled audience of random voyeurs of a sadistic bent; and then all that straw and other flammable materials being piled high all around me and then get lighted, yes, set on fire, and everything starting to burn all at once, with great vengeance and terrible roaring, crackling deafeningly, columns of acrid, unbearably hot smoke rising to the sky in a tightening circle, with me at its dead center, and… well, and my only hope at that point would be to die, cease to exist as quickly as possible, of smoke poisoning or pure psychological mega-shock, maybe even of a fortuitous heart attack, like I said—just to pass out and die on the spot right then and there, before those infernal tongues of flame start lapping at my naked flesh… Marat! Marat! Remember? How intensely horrifying those images were in my mind, how utterly and completely… how… fire… Fire! All of a sudden, I started crying and screaming at the top of my lungs then, and ran out into the hall, which was dark and empty and smelled of shit and urine and stale tobacco smoke, and there I proceeded to run up and down its length, flailing my arms, like a crazed bird, tripping and falling over myself and getting back up to my feet and continuing to run and scream, completely out of my mind with horror, until my parents and yours rushed out of their rooms, terrified… Remember?”
“Ummm… What? What is it?” Marat grumbled, sounding vaguely annoyed. “Yeah, I remember, but what does it… What… What’s wrong with you tonight?”
“I don’t know,” I said guiltily. “I have no idea why I remembered this now.”
“Mmm… Well… It happens,” he said, turning over on his cot, his back to me. “That’s fine. Let’s just sleep now.”
How could it even be possible—living as a hostile stranger to yourself and your own past, carrying your own enemy within at all times, that permanent eraser of all your previous memories?
I lay silently in the dark, listening to Marat’s quiet snoring and gazing at the muted, warm live splashes of light across the ceiling. I wondered what it must feel like—at some point in your life, just out of nowhere, to forget everything about your past, lose all memories of yourself as a child, as a young man? How could it even be possible—living as a hostile stranger to yourself and your own past, carrying your own enemy within at all times, that permanent eraser of all your previous memories? How it must feel—to die and be brought back to life with no recollections preceding the moment of your death, no memories to rely on for your eternal salvation—how odd, how terrible! Why would one even choose to go on living, I wondered, under such hopeless circumstances, as a man with no past, when the past is all we have and all there is?
Well, but then, I thought, what choice is there for someone with no past but to just keep on living? What would be resolved by one’s killing oneself, how would nonexistence improve his terrible predicament? When you are someone with no memories, no past, your present may not mean all that much to you, either, because of its essential nonexistence, so it’s not all that terribly tragic in the end. It was easier just to keep going with the old flow… There was a measure of comfort in the thought that life always, under all circumstances, had some independent value of its own, making it always preferable to death, even if that was only by the narrowest of margins.
Could, I wondered briefly, something like that ever happen to me? Could I, too, unimaginably, lose all traces of my past in my mind, completely out of the blue and for no interpretable reason, at some point in impenetrable future? Well, of course it could. As a matter of fact, I thought, how could it not happen to me, or anyone, at least to some partial extent, at one point or another in our lives, given how limited memory’s storage space must be, relatively speaking. It had to be quite limited indeed. Memories came and went. Would I, for instance, be able to remember this very night in Moscow, I asked myself, this warm cocoon of a perfectly uneventful moment in the night, a whole bunch of years later, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, still more than three decades away, unimaginably? I rather doubted it—but by the same token, I could not possibly conceive of ever managing to forget it, either. How could I ever forget that which I was remembering at any given moment? It was inconceivable! And yet, I knew, somehow, that forget most of my past up to date I ineluctably would have to.
Forgetting was inconceivable to the one who remembered, as death made no sense to one still alive… That, I knew, was too advanced and abstract a thought for me to mull over so late at night. Still and all, I wondered whether or not I would remember my present, fifteen-year-old self, many eons into the future—just a sleepless little Jewish Soviet kid from Leningrad lying quietly flat on my back late at night in Moscow and thinking of whether or not he would be able to remember that very precise moment… Oh well. Finally I was starting to feel heavy-lidded, and no longer capable of carrying on a thoughtful internal conversation with myself. What was the point or even the exact nature of my wondering? Life? Yeah, great. Life was one of those things… with too many unknown variables.
I yawned and stretched, feeling cozy and happy.
An unimaginably endless life lay ahead of me, almost frighteningly so. Sometimes, when I thought about it, I became so agitated that I found it difficult to breathe. Everything and anything could happen at any point in the course of my hazy future’s pure vastness. By the time the year 2000 rolled around, I’d already be a very old man, living—if still living and if one could even call that life—well, where? On Mars, maybe? Maybe on Mars: sure, why not? Or perhaps even in America, if it still existed—if, that is, by the year 2000, the whole world wouldn’t have long become one giant Soviet Union. That was possible. Who could foretell such things, peering so insanely far into the chimera of the future? Or maybe—but that was a dangerous line of thinking, and I told myself to cut it out at once—maybe it would be the Soviet Union, conversely, that would cease to… you know. Too many unknowable variables. It was possible, too, that by the time I got old, medical science would have progressed to the point of making it easily feasible for people’s old and tired, slow, worn-out brains to be replaced on a routine basis with everlasting synthetic, brains? Maybe by the year 2000, anyone and everyone who wanted to be immortal, to live forever, would have that option at one’s disposal? Again, sure, why not? And maybe, too, as a result of that ready availability of quick, routine brain replacement on demand for everyone, remembering nothing of one’s past would become a new social norm in that future world, with people actually being proud of how perfectly complete their non-remembrance of things past was? Again, sure, why not?
It might be interesting, mildly curious, I thought distantly from afar, if one night in my old age, pushing fifty maybe, all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, finding nothing better to occupy my newly installed synthetic brain with in the middle of my futuristic nocturnal non-dormancy, on Mars somewhere or in Soviet America, I were to attempt remembering myself as a boy, a fifteen-year-old, say—and then, after drawing predictably nothing but a big fat blank and remembering instead that, of course, remembering my previous selves no longer was an option for me and that fifteen year-old boy who’d used to be me, therefore had been dead for a veritable eternity, poor little ting, maybe for a fleeting instant I would feel uncharacteristically sad, in a long-forgotten and indeed impossible kind of way, but then I, or that very old me with a new brain would shake his head self-ironically, engulfed by night’s gentle darkness, on his futuristic invisible pillow made of pure ionized air and solar energy or whatever, and he would smile wistfully in the dark and say to himself, very quietly, under his breath, just so as to hear someone’s voice in the night, “I bet he was a reasonably good kid—that boy I used to be once. I wish part of me still could be him.”
Sure, why not, I thought, drifting off. Old people often were tearfully sentimental for no good reason. A wave of quiet ardor passed over me in the dark, and I closed my eyes, breathing deeply and evenly, falling into the night, remembering everything and nothing.
Mikhail Iossel, the Leningrad-born author of the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know and co-editor of the anthologies Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, is a professor of English/Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal—and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program. Back in the Soviet Union, he worked as an electromagnetic engineer/submarine demagnetizer and as roller-coaster security guard, and belonged to the organization of samizdat writers, Club-81. He came to the US in 1986 and started writing in English in 1988. Among his awards are the Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner Fellowships. His stories, in English and in translation to a number of other languages, have appeared in NewYorker.com, Guernica, The Literarian, Agni Review, The North American Review, Threepenny Review, Interia, Boulevard, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Author photo by Vladas Braziunas.