Fall 2013 / Spring 2014
"…When a person who is close to you dies, in the first few weeks after his death he is as far from you, as far as a near person can ever be; only with the years does he become nearer, and then you can almost live with this person. This is what happened to me. Poland, Jewish life in Poland, is nearer to me now than it was then."
Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Shop Talk by Philip Roth
"…Being deframed, so to speak, from everything familiar, makes for a certain fertile detachment and gives one new ways of observing and seeing…This perhaps is the great advantage, for a writer, of exile, the compensation for the loss and the formal bonus—that it gives you a perspective, a vantage point."
Eva Hoffman, The New Nomads
I needed to be alone in Moscow, to have at least one day for myself, for my walking tour of Natasha personal sights. I did not want anybody next to me, from my past or from my present; I did not want to speak in any language; I needed silence. Sleep deprivation made me feel numb and cotton-thick inside, yet tense and bouncy on the outside, as if my skin was pulled tight, like a string of a guitar. I still couldn't believe I was in Moscow.
Dayev Street, where my friend Katia lives, is very close to my childhood, just a walk away, but to go to my adolescent and college years, I need to take the metro. I am about to plunge into the nearest entrance, which used to be called Kirov station, a big red word with a wrinkled raisin inside, which coexists in my mind with a gray structure of the entrance, reminiscent of a mausoleum. I am not sure, however, which colors belong to the actual place and which—to the word, for the word1 and the place are ingrained in me and can't be disassociated. The surrounding landmarks are part of this symbiosis: the tall Griboyedov statue with the stone benches in semi-circle, the green muddy pond, Chistiye Prudy (Clear Pond), which at some point in time must have been clear, and the squeaking streetcar, A, called Annushka, a diminutive for Anna.
Russian nouns have gender, and streetcar is masculine, yet this one is feminized. As opposed to many "A" male possibilities, like, Alyosha or Andryusha, granting a streetcar a female name is certainly a term of endearment for one of the oldest streetcar lines in the city and for the old Moscow neighborhood, the reflection of people's bond to each other and to common history. When we casually refer to Annushka, talking about getting to places, we convey a sense of family, intimacy, and of community.
Since literature is another one of these connections, especially in Russia, where writers are considered prophets and fiction substitutes for history, Mikhail Bulgakov's famous novel, Master and Margarita, is often associated with streetcars and with Annushka. In its opening chapter, a writer named Berlioz is prophesized by Satan, who appears in disguise of a foreign professor, to be beheaded by a Russian woman. Sure enough, Berlioz slipped under a streetcar as a direct result of a minor incident: a simple Russian woman, Annushka, "had spilled the vegetable oil." The fatalistic expression, "because Annushka had already spilled the vegetable oil," therefore, has become common in Russian discourse, reflecting the blend of rational and mystical, so brilliantly and wittily captured by the writer. As literature has been for centuries the only public mirror for cultural reality, I wonder if other, more authentic, beheadings and monstrosities were explained by Annushka's vegetable oil!
Across from the metro station, at the corner of Kirov Street, I see the monumental Central Post Office building with a huge pontifical hall, tiled in marble, and the post clerks' windows on the perimeter. I used to come here to mail letters and packages to France and to America because of the common belief that the mail posted here had more chances to actually get to its destination. The underlying rationale was to avoid as much Soviet red tape and omnipresent chaos as possible and to ensure a more rapid conduit to the censors. Every single letter sent abroad, written in any language, was censored; corresponding and communicating with foreigners and speaking in tongues meant to be watched, read, and listened to. That was not a myth, but a stark reality, and so, a sufficient reason for normal Soviet paranoia.
I hear my own steps echo when I walk on the marble floor; I look behind, right and left, and I see a KGB agent in every clerk; he or she is getting ready for interrogation. They certainly know how to read my mind, my fear, and how to extract my secrets. Maybe these marble floor squares can magically open up at a press of a button—and there I will collapse, soundlessly and vertically, into a dark narrow tunnel, landing directly into a Lubianka cell. Nobody will ever, ever hear from me again…
Besides the visual and the topographic, there is also an olfactory association with this place. Once I get to the Kirov Street, I am immersed in the strong smell of freshly ground coffee. That smell, enveloping the place and the word, comes from the famous Tea and Coffee House, whose façade is designed as a pagoda, with towers, dragons, and Chinese umbrellas. The Tea House, as it had been originally called, was built by a tea import merchant, Sergei Perlov, in 1896, in preparation for Nicholas II's coronation, and was designed as an Oriental palace for an important Chinese diplomat. Although Sergei Perlov lost the bid for the Chinese guest's residence, his new store became a timeless advertisement and symbol for his firm.
Surprisingly, its fame extended to the hungry Soviet era, when the space on the store shelves was by and large occupied by pyramids of just one tea brand that smelled like wet rotten hay and, on a lucky day, one coffee brand. People remembered the Tea House if not by its tea or coffee, then by the memories of tea and coffee, in multiple brands and flavors. And those of us who have suffered major memory loss or did not have a chance to be born during "the food era," still liked to walk by the Tea House and to admire its beauty, as myths tend to survive reality. If coffee was available there, the smell hypnotized the crowd, and because it would not last, it was always fresh, perpetuating the legend that it was the best in the city.
For as long as I can remember myself, someone in the family was always sent to the Tea House to get whatever coffee was available, that is, IF it was available. When I became an adult, passing by in the neighborhood, I couldn't help but walk in and get on a line, inhaling with all my might the bold coffee flavor and contemplating the exotic Buddha statues in the murky light of the store. I would carry the crispy thin paper bag with a picture of spilling coffee beans to the metro and see people around me sniffing the air and smiling, as the delicious aroma, more delicious than its taste, is spreading from my bag all over the car.
That "best coffee" on Kirov Street meant any coffee, just coffee, since over those decades of food shortages that filled my life here, Russian language lost the signifiers for kinds, brands, and names of dishes and of culinary nuances along with the signified. Instead, food words became general: coffee, tea, cheese. Now the fascinating process of linguistic restoration, following food abundance in the stores and in people's kitchens is under way. Myriad words and names for foods have reappeared, some retrieved from old culinary books and literature, some newly invented, and some awkwardly translated or shamelessly borrowed from other languages. But how does this fascinating process of collective remembering, reinventing, and creating a new lingua-culture relate to my own individual one?
Even though Griboyedov is still there and so is the Central Post office, the space as a whole is not recognizable, and neither is its name. Kirov, the imminent Russian revolutionary, allegedly the "good guy," whose assassination, possibly ordered by Stalin out of rivalry and used as "Annushka's vegetable oil" to initiate the domino effect of major "show trials" and political murders, has been forced out of the place and out of collective memory. His name has been replaced by the old name, Myasnitskaya, for the street. The metro station has been renamed in honor of the muddy pond, Chistiye Prudy. The overpowering coffee aroma has also vanished, no matter how hard I sniff. The Tea House is under reconstruction, like so many other historical buildings in Moscow, and I am worried that it might emerge out of it with the incongruous Fanta, Heinekken, or Toyota ad on its pagoda roof. Instead of coffee, the acrid beer odor violates the senses. The metro station "mausoleum" is covered by multi-colored billboards, posters, and flyers. Shapes, colors, and textures signal a different world and different words, and I feel confused and disoriented in what is supposed to be a familiar external and internal landscape.
The little metro plaza looks like a nest, in which vendors, stands, and kiosks are tightly squeezed like little fledglings, pushing each other and peeping, fighting for their lives with flowers, ice cream, and the ubiquitous beer. Near a beverage stand, there are tables and chairs under bright Kodak umbrellas, and on the other corner, I spot a McDonald's, with its famous icon, a big yellow M sign. The black-and-white socialist realism movie is over, and the plenitude of open space is a relic of the non-entrepreneur past.
Frankly, McDonald's is not my idea of an enjoyable meal, especially in today's Russia, with restaurants and cafés of various kinds and denominations blossoming, but later in the week, my American kid talked me into trying it. The place was incredibly crowded, and, in the old Soviet tradition, we had to stand in a huge line. To my surprise, the McDonald's food tasted much better than in the U.S., which might be the paradoxical effect of still backward post-Soviet, un-industrialized, and genetically and chemically pristine farming. Because of this, all food tastes great here, and my mother and I are making sure to stuff my daughter Julia with "real" tomatoes coming from Moscow countryside gardens, fresh aromatic wild strawberries straight from the woods, and creamy delicious yogurts flavored with something genuine, not plastic berries. "Yesh' Yulia! Eat Julia! Mangia, mangia! The organic capitalism will not last…"
In the McDonald's line, I face a dilemma: In which language should I order "hamburgers" and "French fries"? Against all odds, I opt for language authenticity: these are American words in the American place, and I am American, so I must use them in English! To defensively claim my right to America and with a grain of imperial arrogance, I insert the detested hamburgers and French fries in the middle of a Russian sentence, and the server raises his eyebrows in a question mark. Since the rest of my Russian sentence is flawless, he is utterly confused about those two incomprehensible words. Not everybody in the world speaks English! It turned out I had to say "in Russian" gamburger and kartoshka fri. Why did the McFlurry remain un-translated?
Across the street from the McDonald's, the space had been entirely transformed by an enormous palace-like building, with sumptuous stairs and fountains, a brand new capitalist institution, Lukos Oil. Young men dressed in dark suits and ties and elegant ladies, also in business suits, are going up and down the stairs, with briefcases, envelopes, papers, and businesslike looks. Many are smoking at the fountains, but here nobody is drinking beer on the go!
My original confusion is boiling up into anger. I begin to think of Oliver Sacks's insightful stories of weird neurological conditions. Maybe I am afflicted with one of them, in which the word and the world do not come together and the linguistic, visual, and storied realms, tightly fused in my mind, have somehow disintegrated. There is an antagonistic flavor to this mental conundrum, and I need to get to the bottom of it!
Just like the Kirov metro station, most streets and metro stations in Moscow have not only changed their looks but also changed their names to the pre-revolutionary ones. My friends would casually tell me, "Change the train at Kitai-gorod" or "Get off at Tverskaya" and expect me to know their new/old onomastics, as if I had been there to share with them this reversed linguistic map, which came (back) to existence during the latest history of fallen socialism.
The "renaming back," the deletion of the symbols and of the representations of the "shameful past," including monuments, architecture, and art, was all around me. Not that I miss "The Iron Felix" in the middle of Lubianka square (Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka, the parent organization of KGB), but the place feels empty, as if devoid of content—of eight decades of "wasted" lives. Was I being erased and deleted, in this sweeping process of history revision? After all, the erased world used to be the country I lived in my whole life, the country I had to flee!
For a period of time in the 90s it engaged in redemption, during which confessions, denunciations, and rebuttals appeared in the media, and the forbidden anti-Soviet literature poured from the cornucopia of truth for the interested to read their heart out. The "lost empire," to echo Andrei Makine's novel,2 was being crossed out from the visual field of city squares, streets, and façades. The only sanctuary for the requiem's dying coda happened to be my memory, untouched by local societal developments. While everybody here is busy rebuilding, I am still standing in the ruins—of Kirov metro station, of Kirov Street, and with Comrade Kirov the revolutionary.
Like Bulgakov's Margarita, turned by Satan into a witch, I soar into Moscow sky on my broom (made in China) and whoosh! I fly all over Moscow, free, mad, and revengeful, looking into people's windows, smashing, crushing, and destroying! Contrary to Margarita, who had a specific target, my grotesque destructive flight is not aimed at particular people or homes. It is rather a healing act of letting my anger go, against the passive aggressive, victimized and victimizing culture. Here! Get this! You cannot delete me! I did exist! My parents did exist! My grandparents did exist! History did exist, despite all this renaming! Bam! Pow!
Perhaps this explains my loss of sleep in Moscow. I must be "sleep-flying" on a broom all night long and smashing Muscovites' windows!
Finally I plunge into the metro entrance. Like in New York, Moscow's metro is the city's vascular system. It used to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter; it had always been kept very clean; and drunkards, the normal sight in Russia, were forbidden to enter or had to pretend to be sober—usually a difficult act to put on. None of this is the case anymore: the beautiful marble palaces are stuffy and abound with beggars and all kinds of vendors at every transfer and passageway. Most people (that is, men) walk around the city with beer bottles, their little pacifiers, slightly red-faced and slightly tipsy, even on the trains. Tipsy is not the same as drunk-to-unconscience, and so this is an improvement. Once, on one of our metro rides, Julia and I witnessed a young man drinking vodka, as the Russian idiom goes, iz gorla, straight from the bottle, which inevitably slipped down and shattered into small pieces in the middle of the crowded car, the precious smelly liquid spilling all over. Julia jumped back, pinched her nose, and rolled her eyes. But people around us did not pay any attention to the incident, consumed with their own thoughts or with their own beer.
Liquor is sold everywhere, disproportionately outweighing all other merchandise in variety and in cost. Life is expensive in Moscow, so expensive that retirees, who worked all their lives, cannot survive on their pension and have to beg or to rely on their families' financial support. But liquor and tobacco cost pennies, and one can't help but wonder if the nation is intending to commit collective suicide by slow extinction.
As I am writing these lines, newspapers report President Putin's decision to create financial incentives for women to have more children, in the awareness of the dangerously decreasing birth rate and increasing mortality demographics (the median mortality age among Russian males is 59). The Russian leader overtly spoke to the nation of the need to enhance the military, i.e. to replenish the "cannon fodder," as this demographic under-production may threaten to sustain a functional army. Producing more sons to enhance the military? Of course! Every Russian understands that. Our army, the best army in the world, is invincible, and it has to stay this way!
Acting on people's nationalistic feelings would certainly provide support for the government. But what about the demographics of alcoholism? How about regulating liquor prices and investing in research and substance abuse treatment? How about addressing deeply rooted in the culture distorted attitudes to health and patriarchal family dynamics, as a result of which a father and an alcoholic is the same concept? Obviously, this is a difficult platform to win the country's support from, especially for the unconstitutional third presidency term. As opposed to China's "opium war," a "vodka war" will not happen in Russia. Who, in their right mind, will touch the pacifier?
How naïve, how American of me!
Contrary to all logic, the Moscow metro was not created as convenient transportation but as a timeless myth of Soviet greatness, just like the Soviet space endeavors and Yury Gagarin, like "the best in the world" Moscow ice cream and the mighty invincible Soviet army. During Stalin times and after his reign, all metro stations were designed as palaces, in granite and marble, thematically reflecting their names, given in honor of particular events, with statues, monuments, paintings, and mosaics. In the fairy tale of the happy Soviet kingdom, people did not have enough to eat, lived in communal apartments, stood in lines to buy toilet paper—but they were filled with pride for their subway. This is how, I reasoned, with ice cream, military parades, and marble metro stations one could sustain a humiliated nation's self-esteem, and blow out of proportion defensive patriotism and loyalty to the Motherland.
One can only imagine the admiration with which foreign tourists regarded the unique in the world "metro palaces," recalling with disappointment and shame their own ancient and shabby subways, in Paris or in New York. In these cities, for instance, the subway had been built more than a century ago on accounted for taxpayers' money and had been designed as much needed urban transportation, not as indulgence in patriotic feelings. Even I, fully aware of this conceptual difference, still experience New York's pragmatic subway as ugly and depressive in comparison with Moscow's, as do all former Soviet citizens. Like me, they had the privilege to dwell, for an hour or so, in magnificent marble palaces, which belonged, according to Lenin's definition of art, "to all the people": to them, to me, to nobody.
I get off the train at Taganskaya station, which had imprinted in my mind its spring-like, romantic colors of sky blue, cream, and gold. The scenes on the murals represent sailors, soldiers, peasants, and workers and are adorned with fine gilded "Baracko" (a pun: baroque and barrack). The endless revolution and war victory dominated Soviet public space to the degree that the mind ceased to differentiate meanings, just like at some point ubiquitous political slogans seem blank. Why don't I remember the dim light, the grayish fading colors, and the tasteless, pretentious accessories? With the crowd pouring out of the cars, I approach a huge staircase to transfer to the "new Taganskaya," a line to a popular Moscow suburbia. During the rush hour, the crowd here is always so thick that one can't help but touch the person in front and be touched by the person behind, as well as from the left and the right, and be enveloped by flesh and odors. You lose yourself in this big mass; you become a small particle, nothing but a cell in a big body, which crawls ahead, and inhales and exhales by a soundless command from beyond. I am helpless and relieved at the same time, taken by and with that river, in which there is no individuality, no personal will…until I realize I can breathe on my own, as the particles disintegrate. The "particles" take other trains or they head, like me, to an exit—liberated or fearful to be on their own?
I haven't experienced this fusion, this awkward physical connection for a long time in America. Even during rush hours, when subway trains and stations are quite crowded, New Yorkers miraculously manage to create small individual packets, "air bags" between each other. Do they stop breathing out? Do they constrain, by sheer will, their bodily odors? Do they create invisible walls to resist the compression at the mighty push of the crowd? Perhaps it is only an illusion, somehow created in my Gotham City, that one remains profoundly untouched by others, both physically and emotionally. If so, every smile or a friendly comment is an incredible gift…
The "new Taganskaya" station is in white and brown stone. In my memory the stone is shining, and the light is neon white, almost blue. But it is not shining now, and the light seems to be dim, like everywhere else in the metro. Are they trying to save money on light bulbs? Maybe the stones have not been cleaned for a while? Or is it my memory, offering an "illuminated" nostalgic picture? Is it the inside or the outside? In other words, is it me or them?
I take the escalator up to the exit. On that long escalator, I watch people heading down on the opposite one, but I am distracted by the commercials on the walls. I can't help but read them, instead of thinking my own thoughts. This massive visual distraction, created by nascent Russian capitalism, makes me a different Russian than I was sixteen years ago, less inside-bound. Then I could write poetry in my head walking around the city, completely ignoring repetitive, meaningless, and invisible slogans and the external sameness. I could be completely immersed into my inner world—perhaps the only privilege of being born in a totalitarian state—and enjoy self-absorption and self-examination.
This concentration on inner life was undoubtedly a coping mechanism to emotionally survive ugliness and slavery. Since they couldn't apply themselves professionally, Russian intellectuals practiced intellect as clandestine religion, as a modus vivendi, reading, socializing, and debating new revolutions in their kitchens. Outside of these kitchens, for decades, the only "food for thought" available was what the Soviet ideology filtered through: socialist realism or classic literature, strictly patriotic war movies, and never ending party congresses on every TV channel. From time to time, during political "thaws," a few literary or cinematic "bones" would be thrown in, like treats, to the hungry public. Some others, lucky multilinguals like me, had access to literature and music from the West via friends. What is called "popular" or mass culture, that is "junk," was non-existent.
No wonder that Russian immigrants, entering the professional world in the U.S., often complain about their co-workers' "low intellectual level," the anti-intellectual TV, media, schools, and their children's lack of interests—the sentiments generating contempt and resulting in a clash with pragmatic American culture. There seems to be nothing left for them but to proclaim self-mockery and cynicism. I am fortunate to be able to express my passion for ideas in the American academic sub-culture, which values it, but I, too, feel slightly out of place, compared to my American peers', with my idealism of some hardened and belligerent nature and with my romanticism bubbling with fantasies. Now I can glance at myself on that escalator, from the outside, in detachment, and giggle a little…
I am walking up a few more steps and here I am, outside the metro station. I was here at least twice a day for two decades: this small space around the glass doors of the metro exit, framed by a couple of kiosks, the usual ice cream and cigarettes. My brain retrieves without difficulty the familiar topography of the place: behind me, Narodnaya Street, a sharp slope down, to Moscow River; on my left, Taganskaya Square, with the streets in a star-like shape; and straight ahead the street called Bolshiye Kamenschiki, which leads to the intersection with Novospasskiy Street, to my house. It takes ten minutes to walk there from the metro station, give or take, and I know every brick, every gate, yard, and crack. Here, here, on the right is a courtyard with a playground, a typical Moscow "inner" yard, the childhood heaven. The overgrown tree crowns are so thick that they make the yard shady and dark, and the soil, not covered by concrete or by some stinky rubber, is black and wet. At the playground, a pavilion with a bench on the wooden floor is in bad need of a paint job. During the day, kids were never there, and on my way home from school I could sit, all by myself, and daydream or write my poems, smoke my cigarettes, or just be, be, be. I would be a teenager forever; I would be young forever, and I would be here forever. Here and now.
Here and now. I look around. To orient myself in the space, I focus on what is in front of me. Instead of being on Bolshiye Kamenschiki street, I am on a wide avenue, with modern, chic pink brick buildings and fancy stores. No sign of intimate courtyards to hide one's adolescent secret life in. The concrete is new and smooth. There are no cracks in it to squeeze my shadow. No matter how many times I obsessively tell myself, in Russian, "I was here," no healing is taking place. I walk that avenue in disbelief, prepared for anything, but no! Oh miracle! IT is there; the building has not been dismantled, reconstructed, or renamed, and the façade is the same beige color. There are some ads, however, and one of those Kitchen and Bath stores on the ground floor that are mushrooming now in Moscow.
I sit on the bench overlooking the large yard, with new bright flower beds, so that I could see our apartment windows. How many times did I mentally play the scene: I am getting in the elevator with a heavy metal door, I am pressing the button, the navy nine, and I am stepping to the right, apartment number 156, white, red, yellow. The mental colors for these numbers are inseparable from that door, from what's behind it, from both the space and the concept of home. The scene would be cut short there. Ringing the doorbell and explaining myself to someone living there is simply unimaginable. My mom opens the door…My dad opens the door…My grandma Yulia opens the door…Why can't people live in the same place forever? Why can't people live forever?
My Dad always whistled while shaving at the kitchen window in the morning. He died in a hospital, in New York, English spoken around him and doctors' names paged through the loudspeakers, the foreign noise in the foreign land. I stepped out of the room, too scared to be next to him on his very last journey, following his immigration. Now is another chance: I could get to the ninth floor, ring the bell—and complete the quest. Maybe the person who lives there, an older woman?, would invite me to the kitchen and offer me a cup of tea. Maybe I could tell her my story? Maybe she would smile and listen? Maybe I could relieve myself by crying? Maybe I could recognize somebody else's right for that space, somebody else's right for that time, for moving in and on, and for not including me?
But alas! I have no courage. I leave the bench and turn around the building. I take a deep breath, as the familiar picture of the gorgeous tall tower of Novospassky Monastery opens up to my view. Together with Communist slogans and monuments, it stayed invisible for decades, God forgotten and God forgetting. During my lifetime, the monastery was completely run-down and served as some kind of storage facility or a KGB secret lab—who knows? It was so invisible that I was never curious about it, as engaged as I was in inner, spiritual, and intellectual matters. For about twenty years I lived next to history itself, going back to the XIIIth century, an important religious institution and a fortress, the entombment of Romanov family members. Novospassky Monastery for men witnessed the upheavals of Russian kingdom and protected Moscow as its main bastion from the enemies--first the Tatars, then the Poles, the Latvians, and the Swedes. Now the handsome, painted bright yellow and white tower has been renovated and is regaining its status as a religious institution. Its historical significance has been described and returned to it, its art restored, and its past existence included in the present. When I approach the gates, I see a sign: "This is a functioning Russian Orthodox monastery. Women are kindly asked not to enter with their head uncovered." Next to the gate, there is a kiosk, which is selling religious insignia, souvenirs, and post cards. I buy a few cards showing the monastery, the church, and the whole architectural complex, with my house in the background. I take pictures. I watch a family approaching the gates, discussing something with their little son, and leaving. They are tourists, and who am I?
I don't have a scarf or a hat, and so I can't enter.
1 This description refers to grapheme-phoneme synesthesia, the neuropsychological blend of senses.
2 A. Makine, The Requiem for a Lost Empire, New York: Washington Square Press, 2001.
Natasha Lvovich is a writer and scholar of bilingualism and of translingual literature—literature written in non-native language. Originally from Moscow, Russia, she teaches at City University of New York and divides her loyalties between academic and creative writing. She is an author of a collection of autobiographical narratives, The Multilingual Self, and of a number of articles and essays. Her creative nonfiction appeared in academic journals (Life Writing, New Writing), anthologies (Lifewriting Annual, Anthology of Imagination & Place) and literary magazines (Post Road, Paradigm, Nashville Review, Two Bridges, bioStories, NDQ, Epiphany). One of her essays has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.