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June 2016 Issue [Readings]

Trick of the Russian Soul


From Secondhand Time, an oral history of post-Soviet Russia compiled by Svetlana Alexievich and published last month by Random House. Alexievich is the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. The story below is that of Olga Karimova, a forty-nine-year-old musician. Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich.

If it hadn’t been for him, I would never have married again. I had everything: a child, a job, freedom. Suddenly, Gleb came along . . . awkward, practically blind, chronically short of breath. He’d done twelve years in Stalin’s camps. They’d taken him when he was just a kid — sixteen years old. His father, a high-ranking party official, had been executed, and his mother had frozen to death in a barrel of water.

Everyone would look at us and ask, “Is that your grandfather? Your father?” I was twenty-eight. I always wore short dresses. Later on, after we got together, he grew handsome. I think I know the secret — it’s a door that can only be opened with love. I’d wake up in the middle of the night wondering, “What am I doing?” I felt crazy. Why him? Why him specifically? Russian women love finding these unfortunate men. My grandmother was in love with someone, but her parents were marrying her off to somebody else. She really didn’t like the guy, she didn’t want to be with him in the least! She decided that when the priest in the church asked her whether she was marrying him of her own free will, she would say no. But the priest was drunk, so instead of asking her as he was supposed to, he just said, “Be nice to him, he froze his feet off in the war.” After that, she had no choice but to marry him. That’s how my grandmother ended up spending the rest of her life with my grandfather: “Be nice to him, he froze his feet off in the war.”

Our men are martyrs. All of them are traumatized, either from war or from prison, from life in the camps. War and prison are the two most important words in the Russian language — truly Russian words! Russian women have never had normal men. They keep healing them, treating them like heroes and children at the same time, saving them. To this day, women still take on that role. The Soviet Union has fallen, and now we have the victims of the fall of the empire.

Gleb didn’t like being questioned. He had this bravado, this prisoner’s habit of hiding everything serious behind jokes. He never said the word “freedom” — it was always “the outside.” “Here I am on the outside.” At rare moments, he’d tell stories, but he’d tell them so vividly, so avidly, I could just feel the happiness he’d taken out of there. Like when he got his hands on some tire scraps and tied them to his felt boots; when the men were transferred, he was so happy to have them. Another time, they got half a sack of potatoes. And somewhere on the outside, while they were working, somebody gave him a big hunk of meat. That night, in the boiler room, they made soup, and it was so good, so wonderful. When the authorities released him, they gave him a reparation payment for his father. They told him, “We owe you for the house, the furniture.” It ended up being a lot of money. He bought a new suit, a new shirt, new shoes, and a camera, and went out to the best restaurant in Moscow, the National, where he ordered the most expensive things on the menu, and then cognac and coffee with their signature dessert. After the meal, when he’d eaten his fill, he asked someone to take a picture of him at the happiest moment of his life. “When I got back to my apartment,” he recalled, “I caught myself thinking that I didn’t feel any happiness. In that suit, with that camera . . . why wasn’t there any happiness? At that moment, the tires and that soup in the boiler room came back to me.”

We’d try to examine it: what makes happiness?

He wouldn’t have given up his years in the camp for anything in the world, he wouldn’t have changed a thing about his life. That was his secret wealth. He was imprisoned from when he was sixteen until he was almost thirty. I asked him, “But what if they’d never arrested you?” He’d make jokes to avoid answering: “I would have been an idiot in a bright-red sports car.” Only at the end, the very end, when he was in the hospital, did he discuss it with me in earnest for the first time: “It’s like when you go to the theater. From your seat in the audience, you see a beautiful fairy tale — a carefully decorated set, brilliant actors, mysterious light — but when you go backstage, as soon as you step into the wings, you see broken planks, rags, unfinished and abandoned canvases, empty vodka bottles, food scraps. There’s no fairy tale, it’s dark and filthy. It’s like I’d been taken backstage, do you understand?”

His journey home, he rode on the top bunk. The train took two weeks to cross all of Russia. That whole time, he lay there on the top bunk, afraid of coming down. He would go out to smoke only at night. He was scared that his traveling companions would offer him something to eat and he’d break down in tears, tell them everything, and they’d find out he’d come from the camps. Distant relatives of his father’s took him in. They had a young daughter. He hugged her, and she broke down in tears. There was something about him. . . . He was an insanely lonely person, even with me.

He proudly told everyone, “I have a family now.” He was enthralled by our regular family life. But the fear — no matter what, the fear. He didn’t know how to live without it. He’d wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, afraid that he wouldn’t finish his book (he was writing a book about his father), that he wouldn’t get a new translation (he was a technical translator from the German), that he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. What if I suddenly left him? First it was fear, then came the shame for being afraid. He survived the camps, but in normal, civilian life, a cop pulling him over was enough to give him a heart attack.

I consider us lucky. It was an important time: perestroika! It felt like a celebration. Freedom was in the air we breathed. His most important dream had come true: Communism collapsed. It was a time of great hope. The Sixties dissidents — people can say what they like about them, but I love them all. Were they naïve? Romantics? Yes! He read the papers all day long. In the morning, he ran down to the Publisher’s Union kiosk by our house with a big shopping bag. He listened to the radio and watched TV nonstop. Everyone was a bit nuts at the time. Freedom! The word itself was intoxicating. We’d all grown up on samizdat and tamizdat. You should have heard how we talked! Everyone used to speak so well! I would be cooking lunch or dinner, and he’d be next to me with a newspaper, reading to me, “Susan Sontag: Communism is fascism with a human face,” “And this . . . listen . . . ” That’s how we read Berdyayev, Hayek. How had we lived before those books and newspapers? If only we’d known. . . . Everything would have been different. Jack London has a story about this: you can live in a straitjacket, you just have to suck it up and get used to it. You can even dream. That’s how we’d always lived. So how were we going to live now? I didn’t know, but I imagined that all of us were going to live well. There were no doubts in my mind.

When I found out he had cancer, I was up all night, in tears, and in the morning I ran to the hospital to see him. He was sitting on the windowsill, all yellow and very happy. He was always happy whenever his life changed. First it was the camps, then it was exile, then freedom, and now this. Death was just another change of circumstances. “Are you afraid I’m going to die?” “Yes.” “Well, first of all, I never promised you I wouldn’t. Second of all, it won’t be that soon.” “Are you sure?” As usual, I believed him. I immediately wiped away my tears and convinced myself that, once again, it was time to help him. After that, I didn’t cry . . . up until the very end, I didn’t cry. . . . I would come to the ward in the morning and that’s when our regular life would begin. We used to live at home and now we lived in the hospital. We got to spend another six months together in the oncology ward.

He didn’t read much. More often, he’d tell me stories. He knew who had informed on him. This boy had been in a study group at the House of Young Pioneers. Either Gleb did it of his own accord or they forced him to, but he had written a letter criticizing Comrade Stalin and defending his father, an enemy of the people. At the interrogation, the investigator showed him that letter.

His whole life, Gleb was afraid that the informant would find out that he knew. When someone told him that the guy’s kid was disabled, he got scared: what if that was retribution? For a while, we even lived in the same neighborhood and ran into each other all the time — on the street, at the store. We’d say hello. After Gleb died, I told one of our mutual friends. She couldn’t believe it. “N? How could he? He always speaks so highly of Gleb.” I realized I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s as simple as that: knowing these things is dangerous. Other former camp inmates came by very infrequently, he didn’t seek them out. Whenever they came over, it made me feel like I didn’t belong, like they’d all come from someplace where I didn’t exist. They knew more about him than I did. I saw that he had another life, which also made me realize that a woman can talk about her humiliating experiences, but a man can’t. It’s easier for a woman to discuss them because somewhere deep inside of herself, she’s prepared to endure violence — take the sex act itself. Every month, a woman begins her life anew. These cycles. . . . Nature helps her along. Many of the women who have done time in the camps are single. I have not met many couples where both the man and the woman did time. The secret of the camps doesn’t bring people together, it cuts them off from one another. His friends from there called me “child.”

Dying wasn’t new to him. He wasn’t afraid of this little death. Criminal-brigade leaders used to take away prisoners’ bread and lose it at cards, and the prisoners would be forced to eat asphalt, tarmac. A lot of people died that way — their stomachs would get glued shut. But he’d just stop eating, and only drink.

I looked back at him from the doorway and he waved at me. When I returned a few hours later, he’d lost consciousness. He was begging someone, “Hold on. Hold on.” But eventually, he stopped, and just lay there. Three more days. I got used to that too. There he is, lying there, and here I am, living. They brought in a bed for me and put it next to his. It had gotten difficult to give him intravenous injections. He was getting blood clots. I had to give the doctors permission to stop treatment. And then he and I were left alone. No more machines, no more doctors, no one came in to check on us anymore. I lay down next to him. It was cold. I got under the blanket with him and fell asleep. When I woke up, for a moment I thought we were asleep at our house. . . . I was afraid of opening my eyes. When I did, I remembered exactly where we were. I started fussing over him. I got up, put my hand on his face: “Ahhh. . . .” He heard me. The agony began, and I sat there. Holding his hand, I listened to his final heartbeat. Afterward, I sat with him like that for a long time. I called the nurse, and she helped me get his shirt on. It was light blue, his favorite color. I asked her, “Can I stay here?” “Sure, go ahead. You’re not afraid?” What was there to be afraid of? I knew him like a mother knows her child. By morning, he was beautiful. . . . The fear had evaporated from his face, the tension had dissipated, all the frenzy of life had dispersed. And I noticed his subtle and elegant features — the face of a prince. So that’s what he was like! That’s what he was really like!

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June 2016

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