DA MO PR SC CL OP OW UB AG AN
RH TE AF
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W E N
S HOR: D O M AUT
LTO DESIGN: YANA BARYSHEVA
W IC B O C OMIN
РУКОПИСИ НЕ ГОРЯТ MANUSCRIPTS DON’T BURN
TO LI LIA
-MIKHAIL BULGAKOV, FROM THE MASTER AND MARGARITA
Throughout the years of the Soviet regime, many of the greatest Russian writers of their generation painstakingly reproduced censored publications – often by hand - and passed these notebooks and manuscripts from reader to reader, keeping alive their voices of hope. They risked imprisonment and certain punishment if caught in possession of these documents or attempting to pass them to fellow writers in the West.
WE W ERE MEAN T
CONTENTS MOSCOW DREAMS QUESTIONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE IN NEW YORK MYSTERIES OF THE RUSSIAN SOUL
ARRIVAL IN MOSCOW MEMORIES OF ANNA ANNA’S GAMBIT THE MOSCOW PROPAGANDA CLUB COLLABORATORS AFTER HOURS TO THE LENINGRAD STATION THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS
P A H
R E T
here is for anyone who has ever traveled abroad during the formative years of one’s youth a singular foreign destination that will always stand apart in the imagination, beckoning with the seductive promise of a reality beyond our ordinary existence. This one privileged place contains both the dreams and aspirations of what it means to experience something foreign while setting the imagination ablaze with visions of what might be, of what is possible, at the key threshold moments of our lives. That impression, of course, is magnified if the first pangs of true love are also experienced at that same time.
M AMS RE D
It is, as some philosophers and historians have pointed out, a phenomenon that is made more acute in the hypersensitive intellectual youth of our generation. This one destination follows them in their dreams and makes its not unwelcome presence known at the most uncertain of times. The faintest whiﬀ of a half-remembered foreign perfume, the intoxicating chatter of young boyfriends and girlfriends seated at an outdoor cafe, an inscrutable smile from a passing bohemian female – any of these are enough to trigger the longing for that foreign destination of their
OTTEN YOUTH AND
- VA N I S
HED L OVE.
Our protagonist Alex V. had certainly experienced his share of foreign destinations in his youth. Envisioning himself as somewhat of a particularly well-educated world traveler (something he adduced to the fact that he had spent the formative years of his youth at a bucolic Ivy League campus known for its Gatsbyesque sense of privilege), he had come to believe strongly that
ALL DOMESTIC TRAVEL DESTINATIONS WERE ALL ALIKE BUT THAT EACH FOREIGN DESTINATION WAS FOREIGN IN ITS OWN WAY.
There are the party-hopping destinations that sway America’s youth with their siren songs of decadence, cheap alcohol and perhaps, more importantly, cheap women. There are the oﬀ-the-beaten-track destinations that attract the restless backpack-toting youth in search of spiritual alternatives to relentless American materialism. There are the beguiling foreign destinations that glitter like diamonds in a Swarovski bracelet – beguiling in their own way (especially when appearing in colorful spreads on the pages of a glossy Condé Nast publication), but alas, nothing more than resplendent costume jewelry that can be mixed and matched as needed during a scintillating cocktail conversations with other similarly well-traveled
and well-educated colleagues. Finally, there are the foreign destinations that excite the minds of intellectual youth with possibilities. Not so much for their historical resonance, but for the opportunity to experience the world in new ways and take up company with fellow passengers in the arrival and departure terminals of one’s generation. These are the cities that seem to express the cultural zeitgeist of an era – the foreign locales that draw the best and the brightest away from stable careers and conventional lives with their irresistible magnetic allure.
In the 1920s, that destination had been Paris. The moveable feast described by Hemingway was the cultural and literary epicenter of its time, drawing writers, artists and the literati to the dazzling City of Light. And the migration always seemed to head further East with each generation in search of excitement, of glamour, of the unknown and unpredictable: Berlin in the 1930s with its antic cosmopolitanism and Weimar-era decadence, Rome in the 1960s with its provocative Fellini brilliance, Prague in the 1980s with its compelling mix of historical elegance and forlorn modernity.
And, for a brief instantaneous moment of time in the 1990s, that destination had been Moscow. If there had been one epochal moment of history in the twilight years of the twentieth century, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union as t h e result of the relentless onward march of American capitalism. It was the Hegelian dialectic in reverse, with Communist society capitulating to the forces of global capital. The worker strikes in the shipyards of Gdansk were the first faint rays of daylight peeking through the shabby curtains at dawn. The opening of the Brandenburg Gate and the fall of the Berlin Wall was a wake-up call delivered with delirious clamor to a sleeper already half-suspecting that it was almost time to wake. The final break-up of the Soviet Union and the resulting fall of Communism was perhaps the most remarkable bloodless coup in history, as if a drowsy sleeper had finally awakened from a long sleep and decided that, yes, I must finally awake and do something about those rusted factories and empty store shelves. If Moscow Did Not Believe in Tears, it certainly also did not believe in moderation of any sort. It was not just the Communist apparatchiks turned nouveau riche, or the Golden Youth of the city’s elite, or the shady biznesmen who ran businesses of indeterminate origin and provenance -- it was the Mafiosi, the night butterflies attracted to the lure of cold hard cash in the underground passageways of the capital’s busiest streets, the guys in Adidas track suits who
ran the kryshki, the adventurers and traders from the outlying former Soviet republics -- who converged in one place at one time to collaborate on a fin du siècle production financed entirely by nature’s own bountiful supply of oil, gas, aluminum and nickel. The final result was a glittering montage of Western billboards the length and breadth of the city; a surrealistic mix of impossibly thin, fashionably-attired devushki and impossibly poor, poverty-stricken babushki; and nightly decadence at any number of new clubs conceived of, owned by and frequented by recently-minted oligarchs.
C H A P T E R
T W O
QUESTIONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE IN NEW YORK
hich is why, perhaps, on an otherwise cloudy, overcast late winter day in the waning days of the twentieth century, we find our protagonist, Alex V., inconsolably watching a special CNN segment about the emerging Moscow luxury market in his relatively small and box-like Manhattan studio apartment feeling anything but luxurious. The weather outside, far from detracting from his melancholy mood, actually brightened his spirits, serving as it did to heighten his remembrances of previous winter days in Moscow. On the other hand, the flickering images of sparkling silver baubles and fashionablyattired Russian nouveau riche parading about on the TV screen did little to excite him, only reminding him that his New York lifestyle paled in comparison to the expatriate lifestyle that was now possible in the New Russia (as the excitable Western media had taken to calling it in an attempt to diďŹ€erentiate it from the much blander and far less marketable Communist Russia). Just as he had done nearly every day of every week of every month this winter, Alex had briefly considered what it would take for him to move to Moscow --
“Alex – is that you?” Just at that moment, the sweet murmur of his girlfriend’s question floated across the rather limited expanse of his apartment, jolting him back to semiconsciousness. After a moment of hesitation – Do I really need to answer? – Alex reverted back to the familiar jocularity that his girlfriend found so comforting. “Of course, dearest.” What lurked below the surface of that answer, of course, it would be dangerous to even attempt to ascertain. The conventions and mores of living in twentieth-century New York had their own way of being deflating. This is all there is? While others envied his position as a loyal foot soldier in the trenches of the Manhattan financial sector, Alex had a gnawing sense that he had accepted a life of conventionality rather than follow his dreams in life. As a university student, Alex had always puzzled over America’s Golden Youth who appeared to disdain the very fortunes that their peers so eagerly sought. The youth who attended the best boarding schools of the world’s most prosperous capitalist nation and then migrated naturally to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities attended by the sons and daughters of politicians, industrialists and Hollywood moguls had somehow preferred to lackadaisically shuﬄe about the campus in shabby clothes, becoming lost in a haze of alcohol dreams night after night. It was as if
they were still looking for some other reality not aﬀorded by their ordinary existence. And now Alex felt that he had joined their ranks.
“THE NEWS FROM MOSCOW LOOKED OMINOUS TODAY. ANY CHANCE THAT THERE MIGHT BE TANKS IN THE STREET THIS YEAR?” continued his girlfriend, sensing an opening in the conversation. The reference to “tanks” was, of course, for any Russophile of a certain age an unmistakable reference to the early 1990s and the failed coup attempt that led to anti-perestroika military forces surrounding the Russian White House along the embankment of the Moscow River. Boris Yeltsin, then the best hope for a Russian democratic future, had stood upon the tanks in bold defiance of the combined might of the Soviet Union and then famously hunkered down inside the parliament building waiting for reinforcements. Alex knew classmates who had been in Moscow during the time of the coup and had always felt a tinge of both
resentment and embarrassment that he, who styled himself the ultimate Russophile, had not been there when Boris Yeltsin became the ruddy-faced spokesperson of the New Russia. Secretly, he had wanted to be on one of those tanks, and when his acquaintances and fellow Russophiles had returned from Moscow with tales of being in the streets, he had been envious.
being forced to confront a growing band of ideological revolutionaries in his mind, who were constantly distributing neurological propaganda deriding the conventional New York life he found himself living much against his will.
“There haven’t been tanks in Moscow since 1993,” snapped Alex indignantly. His girlfriend had a way of treating his fond Russian memories with a derision that pushed him beyond irritability. He found that many people in New York social circles – at least those inclusive of recent university grads intent on making their mark on the world - tended to treat with a similar type of derision the artifacts of previous summers in Moscow – the little matryoshki (Alex hated the term “nesting doll,” hearing in it a thinly-veiled hint at something childish and even a bit eﬀeminate), the lacquer boxes depicting scenes of traditional horse-drawn Russian troikas, the Russian-language magazines and newspapers that still peeked out from his over-stuﬀed bookcase. Even his choice of vodka when frequenting Manhattan bars and clubs – Stolichnaya – literally, The Vodka of the Capital City -- rather than the conventional choice -- Absolut or Grey Goose or any other number of foreign pretenders to the Russian vodka throne -- had led in its own way to Alex
These artifacts from trips abroad to Moscow held a deeper significance than others realized. It was as if Alex had hidden away in every recess of his apartment clues to the one secret that he was determined never to broach with his girlfriend: the existence in his heart of
L R I G A R O F E V O L L EA T R S A Y L R E A I V S A US R N I T E HE HAD M SUMMER while traveling on a crowded train between St. Petersburg and Moscow.
n the quiet hours of a New York morning or in the cacophonous moments on the subway train back home from the grey canyons of the financial district -- in fact, at any time that he could find a respite from the nonstop running commentary of 1s and 0s of his digital oﬃce life, Alex enjoyed reminiscing about last summer’s dalliance with Anna. Windswept brown hair, high Slavic cheekbones and a penchant for combining fur in a beguiling number of ways in her choice of hats and boots and coats – Anna had appeared to him at once to be the very manifestation of
THE TYPE OF GIRL HE HAD HOPED TO MEET WHEN HE HAD VISITED RUSSIA FOR THE FIRST TIME. He had met Anna departing a train bound for St. Petersburg from Moscow and had never been able to forget her. As with many other American expatriates who had dabbled in romantic relationships with young girls in the Russian capital, it was always the mysterious smile framed by Slavic cheekbones that Alex found most enchanting. It seemed to allude to a centuries-old Russian secret to which there would be no solution.
MYSTERIES OF THE RUSSIAN SOUL
Alex had attempted on more than one occasion to define to his friends precisely what made Anna so unique, but found himself struggling instead with the decades-old Churchillian conundrum. Anna – like Russia – was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Lacking phrases or
even words to describe Anna, the best that Alex could do was to reduce his admiration for Anna to a single letter.
was a desire to preserve the Asiatic influence first visited on Moscow by the rampaging hordes of Genghis Khan.
Within the Cyrillic alphabet, there is a letter unique to Russia that summarized for Alex the profound tension at the very center of what Anna meant to him:
Щ is, perhaps, the perfect lexical expression of the fact that, as Ambrose Bierce famously remarked, a Russian is a person with a Caucasian body and a Mongolian soul. The two perfectly formed ends of the letter pull at each other, competing for dominance. Neither the Western nor the Asiatic end appears to get the upper hand. Yet, as if some kind of footnote reminding us that Russia had finally been forcibly Westernized by Peter the Great, the letter ends with a Cyrillic aﬀectation – a slight flick downward, to diﬀerentiate the letter from its more familiar Cyrillic relative.
A consonant at once coarsely dissonant as well as elegantly refined, the letter can only be pronounced with a harsh explosion of air from the upper palate, combined with an almost voiceless rolling sound from the larynx. When translated from Cyrillic into Latin, the letter had somehow managed to acquire a dual characteristic, typically transcribed as simultaneously two letters at once: sh and ch. As Alex had learned in his freshman year Russian language class, щ is actually a consonant cluster with which even linguists struggled. щ is a combination of the sounds “sh” and “ch” – two sounds irretrievably linked together so that neither sound emerges triumphant, as in “fresh cheese.” It was as if the letter had been created by a cabal of Orthodox monks in a surreptitious meeting in one of Russia’s tiny onion-domed churches as a way to symbolize the twin competing desires of the Russian soul. On one hand, there was the proclivity to turn Westward to the civilizing influence of Europe; on the other hand, there
In his European history classes at the university, Alex had delighted in finding the letter щ in unexpected places. The letter щ, щ, it seemed, had always found a way to express its own intransigence to the current historical narrative – as in the example of Khrushchev and the hulking urban Khrushchyovki built in the first decade of the Cold War during the first great thaw in the Soviet Union. Mighty Nikita Sergeyevich, who famously barnstormed through America in 1959 with his disdain for the projection of American power and his chauvinistic regard for Soviet might. The same Khrushchev who famously banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations and later declared to the West, “We will bury you.” For Sovietologists hunkered
away in the bunkers of their Ivory Towers during the early years of the Cold War, Khrushchev was the break that they were hoping for – a departure from the empire-building, gulag-creating Stalin and the transition to a more docile, Western-leaning bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. (A hope, mind you, that would only come to fruition decades later with Mikhail Gorbachev and his Westernizing pizzas). The letter щ haunted Alex’s dreams: he would see the two ends of the letter щ in a state of constant tension and would reinterpret this for his own modern ideological struggle. The American side, roused by the sudden appearance of a new threat, would wake up to wage all-out war with its Russian competitor. Perfectly matched, the two sides would compete for control of Alex’s psyche. Stealthily, the American side would slide its powerful capitalistic arms around the Russian side, hopeful of a quick victory. The Russian side, sensing the encroaching threat, would carefully adjust, thrusting up a mighty Marxist arm in a perfectly timed counterblow. As the two ends of the letter щ entwined around themselves, the two sides would slowly morph yet again, this time into the two women who defined his existence. The Western end of the letter щ would morph into his New York girlfriend, wearing matching J. Crew separates, comfortable flats and a
Tiﬀany tennis bracelet. The Russian end of the letter щ would transform into Anna, stiletto-toed and embraced by her handsome furs. In this new anthropomorphic scenario, it would be Anna who would strike first, confident of an overwhelmingly asymmetric move that combined physical alacrity with the wiles of a well-trained emotional saboteur. And thus it was in the early dawn hours of another wintry night that a procession of Cyrillic letters filed by in Alex’s dreams. If other Americans counted sheep, he counted щ’s. Tickled by the gentle curvature of щ in shchekotat. Pinched and plucked by the bristles of щ in shchyotka. And, there, coquettishly dancing like a debutante at the end of what seemed to be an endless procession of words beginning with щ – could it really be… Kitty Shcherbatskaya!
Alex awoke, perspiring, soaked in sweat, firmly convinced that he would need to go to Moscow and find the Anna not of his dreams, but of his
R E T AP UR H C FO
he fact that the sun had once again decided not to poke through the grayness of the New York clouds the following day and that the meteorologists on the local news were even predicting a light snowfall by early evening Alex construed as a particularly propitious sign. In his heightened emotional state, he took it as incontrovertible proof that his immediate future would be in Moscow, not New York.
“urgent family business.” In a similar manner, he had quietly and unemotionally informed his girlfriend that he would be making a last-minute business trip to Europe for a “mergers & acquisitions deal” that had finally been given the go-ahead by the managing director in his department. He neglected to mention, of course, that the M&A deal involved a brown-haired beauty in Europe’s most remote capital.
After rising at the same time as always and arriving at the grey cubicle in his oﬃce at the time as he had for the past two years, he had quietly informed his pinstripesuited boss that he would be leaving for Moscow on
While he had flown to Moscow on several occasions to meet with Anna, this time was tinged with special meaning. On his earlier trips to the Russian capital, he had not known what to expect. The indecipherable nature of Anna was part
of the delirious excitement of not knowing what could and what might happen. This time, however, he felt a sense of purpose that had eluded him on previous visits. He did not expect to be met at the airport with flowers, as was the custom in Moscow, and he did not even expect a particularly warm reception either when he finally caught up with Anna, who felt that he had abandoned her at the first opportunity to return home to the security of a career in New York. But he could count on an exchange of heartfelt emotions when they finally connected. Throughout the grueling eight-hour flight from JFK to Moscow, he turned over in his mind the various possibilities of what he might say when he encountered Anna again: “Anna, I’ve come for you and I know we absolutely must live our lives together.” Somehow, that opening line struck him as wonderfully appropriate. In New York, his girlfriend would have detected in this opening a sense of irony and perhaps even insincerity. But in Moscow, it was the type of emotional outpouring that he had learned to share with Anna in their short time together. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, the dour looks from the bureaucratic clerks in the passport
inspections area were a fitting complement to the drabness that still seemed to permeate the airport nearly a decade after Moscow’s dizzying embrace of no-holds-barred capitalism. If there was one European airport that had transitioned only fitfully and sporadically into the age of international air travel, it was Sheremetyevo. It was as if the entire crew of cable-fitters led by our dear sodden friend Venichka (drinking a Young Communist’s Teardrop, of course) had, over time, infiltrated every aspect of the airport, lending a unique element of decay, dissoluteness and surliness to every step of passing through passport control, claiming one’s baggage, and jostling through the crowd of waiting family members outside the customs clearance area. Outside the terminal, the line of aggressive taxi touts lent a vaguely criminal subtext to even the most basic economic transaction. Distracted for a moment by what sounded like the muﬄed thud of a car hitting a fellow traveler weighed down with overstuﬀed suitcases, Alex turned his attention to the task of getting to his hotel in the center of the capital.
“HOW MUCH FOR A RIDE TO RED SQUARE?”
“FOR YOU, OUR AMER ICAN
Somehow, in the course of transitioning to capitalism, everyday Russians had adopted the use of slang words like limon, shtuka, stolnik and poltinnik to connote the value of anything from one million rubles (roughly 30,000 dollars at current exchange rates) to 50 rubles (about 2 dollars) in the same way that a particularly enterprising American entrepreneur from an unprivileged background might toss around the word “Benjamins” in casual conversation to impress his peers. Alex had never understood how a “lemon” could possibly denote a million of anything, let alone a million rubles, but such was the inscrutable logic of the Wild East. This brief encounter at an unwelcoming gateway to a xenophobic nation warned of mounting troubles ahead, but Alex focused only on his upcoming meeting with Anna. Lost in thoughts about Anna’s lithe form and wondrously sparkling eyes, he was oblivious to the long slog into the center of Moscow. It was a journey that was made even more treacherous by the dense, swirling snow that glistened and danced in the air before whipping into the windshield of the taxi cab with brutal intensity. Winding down the central thoroughfare Tverskaya, Alex finally glimpsed the walls of the Kremlin for the first time. Wrapped in a snowy gauze, the Kremlin disappeared from view every few minutes, leaving Alex to contemplate the hardiness of a nation inured to subzero temperatures
and unending winter. Minutes later, the taxi pulled up to the impressive façade of the Hotel National, just steps from Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Kremlin. The historical landmark dated back to 1903, when it had attracted diplomats, royalty, tycoons and world-famous artists. By 1918, however, it had been converted into the First House of the Soviets and housed members of the Bolshevik government. Lenin had, according to legend, lived in Room 107 of the hotel. But Alex had not selected the Hotel National on the basis of its historical connections to centuries-old Tsarist culture or its proximity to the Kremlin. He had not selected the Hotel National on the basis of its Russian antiques and treasures or its sweeping, panoramic views. He had selected it for quite another reason. The Hotel National was, in fact, conveniently located just five minutes from the site of the Moscow Propaganda Club, which as we shall presently see, was to play a particularly significant role in determining the fate of our dear protagonist.
he soft crystalline snowflakes continued to dance in the chilly Moscow air. For days now, Moscow had been experiencing one of those rare breaks from the brooding, bone-chilling winters that had provided easy material for legends and myths about Russia’s unforgiving subarctic clime. However, even the gentlest of winter days in Moscow were not for the faint of heart. These were the same Russian winters that stopped Napoleon dead in his tracks at Borodino and resulted in what may be justifiably considered one of the most ignominious retreats in military history.
C H A P TE R FI V E
MEMOR IES OF AN NA
Just hours after his arrival at the Hotel National, Alex had ventured out of the hotel to clear his head and collect his thoughts about next steps. He veered away from Red Square on a diagonal, heading towards the Boulevard Ring that wrapped the city center in a snarling vehicular embrace. Picturing himself as a sort of conquering Napoleon – but a half-foot taller – Alex surveyed the landscape ahead of him before pushing ahead toward Moscow’s legendary Arbat. Modernization was the great army that had ripped the Arbat asunder in the 1960s, creating two parallel tracks of Russian development. On one side lay the New Arbat, a sixlane Soviet-style highway that was alternatively glitzy and grim, adorned on both sides by gaudy new advertisements for the Nouveau Riche in the New Russia. A walk down the New Arbat inevitably led past the infamous Metelitsa
Casino, with its idling BMW land cruisers and loosely regimented groups of mafia hangers-on smoking cheap unfiltered Belomorkanal cigarettes in their Brezhnev-era tracksuits. On the other side lay the Old Arbat, a cobblestone street that represented the historic Moscow of small shopkeepers, artists and craftsman â€“ a legendary artistic district where the great bards like Vysotsky and Okudzhava sang or played guitars each night in front of crowds of young lovers, united by their inflamed passions as well as their willingness to follow the latest directives of the party elite. It was here along the Old Arbat that he had taken Anna on their first date together. They had laughed gleefully and talked excitedly together, he in hesitant phrases of Russian still remembered from his university days, and she in nearly fluent English that often included a few odd neologisms stemming from misguided attempts to combine textbook Oxford grammar with Western advertising slogans. The historical rhythm of the Old Arbat had excited him, and even the names of the old streets and alleyways
hearkened back to preRevolutionary days in Moscow. The rapid encroachment of Westernstyle capitalism since the 1990s, of course, had resulted in a few changes. The Children of the Arbat, a generation of ideological youth once celebrated by Rybakov as heralding a bright new future for the Soviets, had by now long given way to a new generation more desirous of the latest SUV than the latest Soviet propaganda. The Arbat had become something of a touristy, kitschy haunt and a hangout for shabby youths who no longer regarded Red Square as the spiritual heart of Moscow. Instead of struggling artists, there were now hustlers, touts and drunken youths, lugging around their sturdy glass bottles of Baltika beer. Informal cafes that once attracted poets were now deal-making destinations for enterprising members of the Russian mafia, who appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at once. This, then, was the uncertain landscape that surrounded Alex as he walked down the Arbat ahead of his upcoming visit with Anna. His heart pounded as he considered when and how they should meet. Remembrances of times past skipped by in his consciousness, and visions
of Anna resonated in every part of his mind. He hoped that there still existed the same type of passionate love in their relationship that he could rekindle easily, even with an unexpected meeting. As he played with the Moscow telephone card in the pocket of his overcoat, his mind began playing tricks on him. Perhaps this rendezvous had been too hastily planned. Maybe she was never really in love with him. His vision of Anna shifted in his mind, and he began to replay their last exchange of words before he had returned to New York amidst tearful accusations.
“I LOVE YOU, ALEX.” “AND YOU KNOW THAT WE WERE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER, AND THAT I’LL RETURN FOR YOU.” “YES,” A SINGLE WORD UTTERED WITH COMPLETE CONVICTION.
And he had believed her. Now that he was here to finally win her back, however, he began to challenge even this fundamental assertion. In Moscow, everything had a way of becoming distorted in deliriously confusing ways. A familiar “Yes” had a way of being twisted into something strangely unfamiliar, especially after a particularly bracing
200 grams of Stolichnaya vodka. He noticed that Anna had a habit of combining Da with Nyet in rapid succession, as in Da-nyet, to mean something like, “not really.” Anna had been fond of pointing out to him the richness of the Russian language, but this was certainly a type of linguistic opulence that he had never been able to aﬀord. He was having a hard time keeping things clear, and the swirling snow had begun to pick up, meaning that his emotional compass was being disturbed at the same time as his geographical compass was also becoming compromised. It was now less than 24 hours until his planned reunification with Anna. As he reached into his great overcoat for the blue plastic MTS telephone card that he had purchased at an Arbat kiosk, he could not help but remember Okudzhava’s famous words, You are my happiness, You are my misfortune. Hesitantly dialing Anna’s number, he was confronted with an intense stream of deeply contradictory emotions when he heard her unmistakably self-assured voice on the other end of the line.
A N N A’ S GAMBIT
confusion and silence, it was as if she had recovered her self-assurance, and they had talked excitedly about when and where to meet in Moscow. Alex was certain that if he had been able to see her face at that very moment, he would have seen the familiar sensuous smile that had beckoned on more than one occasion to explore her threshold moments of meaning.
rom the window of his hotel room, the view onto Red Square framed by the glimmering lights along the Moscow River and the sentry-like towers of the Kremlin was stunning. Alex admired the gentle curvature of the cobblestone earth on Red Square, where couples walked hand-in-hand, camera-toting tourists milled about and granddaughters and grandsons engaged their babushkas in idle chatter, even at this late hour. It was almost as if this central destination at the very heart of Moscow – originally known as “Beautiful” Square rather than “Red” Square for its beauty, truly was the center of a beautiful empire. The entire earth seemed to spread out from the walls of the Kremlin, as if bent by the iron will of the steely Stalin during one of his ambitious Five Year Plans. His conversation earlier that night with Anna had been emotionally intoxicating. After several minutes of
Turning his attention from the red ramparts of the Kremlin to the red light blinking insistently on his hotel desk, Alex picked up the telephone, where the recorded voice of the hotel concierge informed him that there was a note waiting for him at the front desk. His heart skipped a bit, propelled in equal parts by longing and fear. He knew it had to be from Anna. But he was afraid of what it might say. Had she really been here at the hotel after he had spoken to her on the phone tonight? Returning from the hotel reception desk, he carefully unfolded the note on the Hotel National stationery, hesitant to smudge even a single world of Anna’s graceful prose. Her style mixed in all the idiosyncrasies of Russian letter writing -- Alex had yet to receive a single missive from Anna that did not include exclamation points at regular intervals, overly formalized salutations and dramatic renderings of otherwise mundane events. But the drama of each of her notes compelled him, moved him forward, indeed, shook him out of his Western-induced torpor.
His hands twitched nervously as he read this note. What did it mean? Did it mean that Anna really would be his? That he would finally be reunited in love with her?
“MY DEAREST ALEX! I AM ILL AND UNHAPPY. MY F UTURE IS UNCERTAIN, AND I AM TORN BETWEEN W ORLDS! M E ET ME AT 10 AT THE MOSCOW P R OPAGANDA CLUB! I CAN ONLY C OUNT ON YOU NOW AS I CAST ASIDE EVERYTHING IN MY LIFE. WITH ALL MY LOVE, YOUR ANNA.”
The Moscow Propaganda Club was where he had first met Anna, spotting her dancing with seductive abandon on the ground floor of the club, dressed in what can only be characterized as classic early-21stth century Russian devushki style – black leather pants, stilettos, a form-fitting neon-colored blouse and makeup applied emphatically and even lasciviously around the mouth, eyes and lips. Long-favored by young expats as a Western-style club in Moscow without the hauteur of the big-name glamour clubs and the super-strict red velvet rope tactics of Pasha Face Control, the Moscow Propaganda Club provided an alternative to two other expat favorites: Crisis Genre, which was basically a basement speakeasy in a formerly aristocratic neighborhood of the city; and the Hungry Duck, which was where you were just as likely to bump into the night butterflies fluttering their wings for the night as you were to bump into an expat foreign currency trader. In fact, he had initially been afraid to approach her at the club, finding her beauty intimidating. As it turned out, one of his colleagues that night had made her acquaintance during their days at the university, so introductions were quickly made and an initially halting first conversation
led to an increasingly intimate assignation, in which their minds and bodies seemed to move in lockstep. As they began to date more frequently, he would take her to the Moscow Propaganda Club on weekday as well as weekend nights. So Anna’s decision to meet him there later that night meant that she desired the comfort and familiarity of their earlier meetings. She knew what the Moscow Propaganda Club meant to them and that he would take it as a favorable sign that she still viewed him with fondness. There was, of course, another interpretation to the letter that Alex did not want to think about, did not want to comprehend. It meant that their meeting was just another night out for Anna, who was certainly capable of attracting her fair share of male suitors, especially when in the company of friends like the socialite Elizaveta Tverskaya. Anna and her friends often used the term “making the acquaintance of ” to describe what an overly cynical Westerner might call “flirting with shameless abandon.” A simple declaration - “My dear friend Elizaveta made the acquaintance of someone last night at Simachyov” – usually hinted at something quite complex. Did Anna view him as nothing more than an American “acquaintance”? The fact that Anna was likely to bring her close acquaintance Elizaveta meant that Anna would be able
to parry any expression of love rather eﬀortlessly. She would be free to dance with her female friends without the formal consequences of serious conversation. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Anna was by now dating someone else in Moscow. The impending call of marriage, which many women in New York put oﬀ until their mid-30s, was for twentysomething Russian girls both insistent and irresistible. It was no wonder that these same Russian girls, when transported to New York, would be perceived as all too aggressively courting the favor of the youngest, most handsome and (most importantly) wealthiest Manhattan bachelors. Nevertheless, he proceeded to dress himself in front of the mirror for what he hoped to be the next move in a chess match that had by now entered its decisive phase. The pawns on both sides of the chessboard had already been cleared, leaving him to consider
THE NEXT SEQUENCE
OF MOVES WORTHY OF A NABOKOVIAN GRANDMASTER.
Club nda aga Prop
Arriving at the club just before 10, the long lines that tended to form later as stragglers from Moscow’s outer suburbs eventually found their way to Propaganda had not yet materialized. The bouncer outside the club waved him in, thinking that he was with the group of four girls ahead of him in the queue. Inside, the club was in the process of morphing from mellow dinner club to frenetic late-night discotheque; already, groups of fashionablyattired women slinked around the club in semidarkness, while men drinking vodka huddled in back rooms and on the
The name of the street was impossible to pronounce for Americans, especially after a few rounds of infused vodka. Translated literally, it meant “Alleyway of Big Golden Mouths,” which must have been some Tsarist-era insider joke that never fully got translated into Soviet bureaucratese. Usually, Alex would hail a car on the street and just instruct him to go to Propaganda (or simply “Propka,” if he was feeling particularly confident in his handling of Russian diminutives that night). Despite having been to the club for more weekend nights than he could remember, he still didn’t know the precise address. Navigating down the slender alleyways radiating out from the Kremlin, he would simply instruct his driver to stop in front of the door with a
line of black-clad patrons waiting outside.
he approach to the Moscow Propaganda Club from any direction provided its own form of historical drama. Housed on Bolshoi Zlatoustinsky Pereulok, the club was situated just out of sight of the Kremlin, wedged in between the tiny churches of Kitai-Gorod and the fashionable shops of Kuznetsky Most, just steps away from Revolutionary Square and the former headquarters of the KGB on Lubyanka Square. The buildings lining the ancient cobblestone streets surrounding the club dated back to the pre-Revolutionary period, even as far back as the Romanov reigns of all three ill-fated Alexanders.
top floor, accompanied by the moodaltering sounds of Russian deep house music. The Moscow Propaganda Club, which burst onto the scene in 1998, oﬀered better dance music than just about any other nightclub in the city, attracting popular DJs from both Western and Eastern Europe for weeknight sets. While the prospects for beautiful female companionship were considerable at Propaganda - especially as the late evening hours turned into early dawn hours and young female dance refugees streamed in from 011 and Bulgakov - the Moscow Propaganda Club could never be confused for the strip club-disguised-as-a-night-club that places like Night Flight inevitably became. Propaganda had remained a long-time favorite for expats and Russians alike by keeping close control over the tendency of Moscow nightlife to become unruly and excessive. Alex spotted Elizaveta from across the room, his gaze unavoidably drawn to her Yudashkin-inspired cocktail dress that accentuated her litheness and generous curves. He knew that Anna would be nearby. And then he caught a glimpse of her: forcing back the impulse to shout her name over the now-deafening din of the Russian house music, he instead slid across the floor until he stood beside her.
“ANNA, DEAREST, I AM SO GLAD TO SEE YOU.” He pulled her closer, straining to see into her luminous eyes and assure her that she was still the one for him. He could pick up the scene of the intoxicating perfume of her hair, especially as she distractedly moved her hands to brush back her long brown hair away from her eyes. Their bodies disappeared into the mix of enthusiastic propagandists by now distributing their dance moves to potential nighttime collaborators in the club.
“ALEX, YOU KNOW I’VE WAITED FOR YOU TO MAKE THIS STEP.” “I KNOW. I SHOULD HAVE COME FOR YOU MONTHS AGO. COME WITH ME BACK TO AMERICA.” “IT’S NOT THAT EASY NOW, YOU KNOW THAT.”
“BUT WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER,
WE ARE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER IN AMERICA.”
Whether it was the late hour, the potent combination of vodka dispensed 100 grams at a time by the Propaganda barmen, or the intoxicating view of his beloved, Alex felt that he was ready to move beyond the clever tropes that he usually deployed with his New York girlfriend in favor of the heavy and dramatic conversations that the historical peculiarities of the Russian soul made possible. When he had first glimpsed Anna from across the room, he knew that she was the one. Slender, with features that were decidedly Slavic, she was dressed the way that suggestively marketed her passion. Just as she had been on their first meeting together, Anna was attired in an outfit that gave him no romantic pause: luminescent formhugging top, tight black pants and heels, pulled together with makeup that would have looked out of place in America, but that seemed remarkably understated for a destination like the Moscow Propaganda Club. Memories flooded into Alex’s mind, pounding against the thin emotional levee that struggled to keep out the
surging streams of vodka. With drinks in hand, Anna and Alex headed upstairs to the private lounge area of the club, where eager young men camouflaged in black kept watch for potential female provocateurs on the club’s lower level. “I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU, ALEX, THAT MAY BE DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO ACCEPT.” “YES, ANNA, YOU KNOW THAT I WILL LISTEN TO ANYTHING YOU SAY.” He waited expectantly for her reply, confident that he was close to final checkmate after a long, grueling match. He was about to close on his opponent’s queen. “ALEX… I AM IN MOSCOW NOW ONLY BY CHANCE,” she oﬀered apologetically, refusing to make eye contact with him any longer. He nodded, urging her with averted eyes to continue.
“I AM MARRIED NOW AND LIVING IN ST. PETERSBURG.”
he news – imparted briefly, summarily, yet with all the binding force of a Tsarist prikaz - left Alex reeling. He fumbled for words, trying desperately to catch Anna’s gaze once more. Married? St. Petersburg? He had agreed to meet her at Propaganda – and while he had conjectured that a woman of Anna’s beauty surely had her admirers – he had been in no way prepared for this dramatic turn of events. “ALEX, I COULDN’T WAIT FOR YOU TO MAKE UP YOUR MIND ABOUT WHETHER YOU WANTED TO REMAIN IN RUSSIA OR RETURN BACK TO AMERICA. YOU GAVE ME NO CHOICE.” Alex responded to Anna’s words as if he were now in a dense, cloudy haze -- a haze made all the more real by the Lucky Strike and Marlboro smoke rising gently from the tables surrounding them. He attempted to fight through the incongruities and even absurdities of the moment. Had he really traveled to the very heart of the Russian imperial nation to find that he was to meet the same cruel fate as every other foreign usurper who dared to challenge Russian history? He glanced at his watch, noticing that the hour was now well past midnight. The steady techno beat created by the Propaganda DJ had brought more revelers to the floor and enthusiastic shouts of “Davai, davai” from the dancing, writhing bodies. On the dance floor, the pace of activity appeared to be picking up. At his table in the private upstairs lounge, however, the action was slowing
down considerably. Smoothing the pant legs of his black jeans in a nervous gesture, Alex prepared himself for a final mad declaration of love that he knew must come now or forever risk losing Anna. The cocktail waitress circled the table where Anna and Alex sat deliberating. Alex touched two fingers to his throat and mouthed the words “200 grams”, signaling to the blonde waitress that he needed another round of vodka, but this time twice the recommended average dosage for a patient in his state. “ANNA, LET ME COME WITH YOU TO ST. PETERSBURG. THERE, WE CAN WORK EVERYTHING OUT. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE WHAT ANYONE ELSE THINKS, EITHER HERE OR IN NEW YORK.” This, then, was the final masterful, desperate move of a chess player who faced near-certain checkmate from an unexpected corner. It was the kind of radical move required when nearly all of his chess pieces had been removed from the chessboard. His pawns had been sacrificed days before, while his queen had been eﬀectively
neutralized when he left her behind in New York with little more than a half-hearted promise to return after his European biznes deal. He was left alone with two pieces -- a mad king and an even madder bronze horseman. Anna looked into Alex’s eyes, steadily now, almost daring him to take her most valuable pieces. She was waiting for his move, imploring him now with her eyes to make this half-articulated plan a reality. “WE NEED TO LEAVE THE CLUB NOW – LET’S GET OUT INTO THE OUTSIDE AIR AND TALK THIS OVER.” Briefly, they made their way over to Elizaveta, who had by now attracted a swelling male entourage of short-term suitors. Nodding to her, Anna explained that they were stepping out for a conversation outside on the street. As they made their way out of the club, they grabbed their coats – Anna her Russian fur coat that had been a present from her grandmother, and Alex his Russian dublyonka. They proceeded out into the bracingly cold Moscow winter air along Bolshoi Zlatoustinsky. Any casual observer would think that they were a happily married Russian couple, returning home from a late-night visit to a family member’s apartment for a traditional meal of borscht and pelmeni. Heading westward, toward Kitai-Gorod, he thought briefly of the incongruousness of the naming of this part of
town (literally, “Chinatown”), before he made a sharp turn south, along Ulitsa Ilyinka, toward the Kremlin. His black leather shoes crunched discordantly amongst the packed snow, while Anna’s stilettos, remarkably, actually enabled her to gambol gracefully along the cobblestones of these ancient streets. Wordlessly, they continued until they found themselves alone in Red Square. They paused near the dramatic statue of Minin and Pozharsky, across from the iconic, brilliantly colored St. Basil’s Cathedral. They were literally meters away from the mighty walls of the Kremlin, steps from the most important architectural and historical buildings ever created by the leaders of the proud Russian nation. In the intervening amount of time that had taken them from Propaganda to Red Square – and perhaps unknowingly inspired by the historical example of the two figures immortalized in the statute -- he had devised a plan to eject the occupying armies from Anna’s heart.
“ANNA, TOMORROW, WE MUST MEET AT THE LENINGRAD STATION AND TRAVEL TOGETHER TO PETERSBURG. I’LL BUY THE RAILWAY TICKETS FOR US, AND WE’LL TRAVEL TOGETHER TO PETERSBURG. THE LAST OVERNIGHT TRAIN LEAVES NEAR MIDNIGHT – WE MUST MEET AT THE STATION CLOCK TOWER EXACTLY AT 11:30.” “BUT WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN WE GET TO PETERSBURG? EVEN THEN…” FOR ONCE, ANNA’S CAREFULLY MEASURED WORDS SEEMED TO STUMBLE. “I HAVE A HUSBAND. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING, ALEX?” “LEAVE HIM, YOU MUST ANNA. IT IS FOR OUR FUTURE TOGETHER,” AND HE GENTLY KISSED HER, WRAPPING HIS ARMS AROUND HER TO SHIELD HER FROM THE SWIRLING SNOW.
“TOMORROW NIGHT. OUR FUTURE DEPENDS ON IT.” THEY KISSED AGAIN, SEALING THEIR AGREEMENT TO TRAVEL TO PETERSBURG WITH A DRAMATIC FINALITY.
he early promoters of Western-style capitalism had done their best to paper over Moscow with billboards promoting Pepsi-Cola, Cadbury chocolates and Nescafe coﬀee, while simultaneously scraping away the grey mistakes of Soviet bureaucrats. The following wave of capitalist propagandists went one step further, upping the ante in a global advertising race to include foreign luxury cars from Bavaria, elegant fashions from Paris and ornate apartment furnishings from Milan. Yet, despite these eﬀorts to remake the Soviet Union in the image of the West, a deep nationalist aﬀection for Soviet kitsch lingered on.
TO LE TH NI E NG RA N
While Lenin’s Mausoleum had long been abandoned as the annual place of pilgrimage for any true believer in Communism, and countless statues of Lenin sat abandoned and crumbling in the Park of Fallen Monuments behind the Central House of Artists, the iconic name of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin continued to resonate with the people of the great capital city. This reflected itself most clearly in the confusion of the naming of streets, where pre-Revolutionary names mixed with Soviet-era names, and in some cases, even with Capitalist-era names.
Yet, this confusion of nomenclature did not extend to the Leningradsky Vokzal – literally, the Leningrad Rail Terminal – which the Soviet nomenklatura made sure would always preserve the name of Lenin. Despite the fact that this
station was the central hub for all trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg and, further, that the name Leningrad had long since been changed back to Petersburg, it would be impossible to find anyone in the great Russian capital willing to call it anything other than the Leningrad Station. The very ghost of Lenin himself must still be hovering around the station, a testament to the sheer force of will of this man, now mixed together with the smells of the foreign proletariat emanating from pizza joints, hot dog vendors and Baskin-Robbins ice cream vendors encircling Komsomolskaya Square. As Alex arrived at the entrance to the Leningrad Station, he glanced distractedly at his watch, noticing that he still had approximately one hour before his appointed rendezvous with Anna. Given the popularity of the overnight trains between Moscow and Petersburg, it was little surprise that the crowds passing by outside the station were animated and expectant. What was surprising, thought Alex, was the disquieting undercurrent of unease that seemed to permeate the snowy mist. Suspecting it to be merely a reflection of his own disquieted soul, Alex approached a kiosk outside the station and purchased a bottle of Baltika beer. There had always been something comforting about the heft and size of a Baltika
bottle, making him feel almost Petrine in his strength. As he pushed over the rubles to the slack-jawed kiosk vendor, he couldn’t help but overhear the conversations of those around him. “THEY SAY DEAR SASHA HAS ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE OF WINNING OVER THE HEART OF KATYUSHA. THAT WAS OBVIOUS FROM THE BEGINNING.” “OH YES, HE SHOULD HAVE PROPOSED TO HER SOME TIME AGO.” Wandering from kiosk to kiosk, dressed in his favorite dublyonka and lugging an overstuﬀed suitcase, Alex sought the inner sanctum of Lenin’s station. He pushed through the heavy ornate Italianate doors, away from the surging mass of humanity outside – but only to be confronted with an even more unruly mass inside. The scraping of luggage, the ringing of bells, the shouts and cries of loved ones trying to communicate over loud announcements – Alex attempted to escape all these by focusing with an inner calm on the slow passage of time within the station. It was as if time had been frozen by a subzero wintry blast from the Russian taiga, and, as a result, could trudge onward only unwillingly. The clock where Alex had agreed to meet Anna continued its slow trudge around the dial.
11:15 -- only 15 minutes until his promised meeting with Anna and only 40 minutes until the Red Arrow train was scheduled to depart from Moscow for Petersburg. Alex again checked his watch, this time nervously. Was there something wrong? Why wasn’t Anna here? Was it possible that she wouldn’t come after all? He replayed his last conversation with Anna in his mind, certain that he had conveyed to her that they must meet exactly at 11:30 so that they could board the Red Arrow on time. Weighed down by his suitcase, which had accumulated a thin snow layer of its own in just the brief time he had spent outside the station, Alex paced from one end of the hall to the other. The months of romantic anticipation had taken a toll on him, increasing his sense of inner disquiet and conspiratorially diluting his judgment as to the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption that would be appropriate at moments such as these. He noticed with surprisingly little alarm that even 48 hours in Moscow had restored in him a familiar desire to consume alcohol a la Russe. He favored the small gin-
and-tonic cocktails-in-a-can for his inevitable morning hangovers, the thick bottles of Russian beer for midafternoon breaks, and the traditional half-liter bottles of Russian vodka for their easy portability during the evening. On this late evening, waiting impatiently for his subject of possibly unrequited love, he was debating the potential eﬀect on his judgment and timing if he should decide to supplement his Baltic beer with 100 grams of crystalline vodka from The Capital City. The local hangers-on at the station, eager to supplement their low wages in new ways, began to take notice of the increasingly inebriated Alex as a potential mark. Even more menacingly, the ever-diligent members of the local militsia guarding the northwest corner of the station were already registering Alex as a possible target for the popular practice of extortion and shakedown of nonMuscovite transgressors – a practice that was allowed and even encouraged by the local power structures under the pretext of protecting the civic peace. At 11:40, Alex made his way out to the train platform, still hopeful that Anna might appear at the last minute. She had a way of making a dramatic entrance at the last minute, and he hoped that this indeed might be the case tonight. Time, which had once seemed to trudge by
slowly, now seemed to pick up speed and intensity. As the mighty hands of the station clock wound onward from 11:40 to the midnight witching hour, Alex began contemplating his fate if Anna failed to show tonight. At the same time that time picked up speed, the rate of alcohol absorption also seemed to gain in rapidity, forcing Alex to explore thoughts that traveled in foreign, uncharted territory: “I must somehow punish her and escape from everyone in Moscow. She will know then that she cannot trifle with our love in this manner.” Striding purposefully across the platform with fresh determination, Alex underestimated the slickness of the Moscow ground in mid-winter. His Western-made boots - though constructed with leather lasts specially fitted and size by English craftsmen plying their trade for decades were no match for the accumulated centuries of cunning of a Russian winter. Stepping awkwardly on an unmarked spot of ice, Alex’s left foot lost control, propelling his body forward. At the same time, the Red Arrow train destined for Petersburg was pulling into the platform. Alex struggled to regain his balance, hearing the muﬄed thud of his suitcase hit the platform ground. The Red Arrow, inexorably bearing down on Alex, could not stop. Plaintive cries of nearby passengers could do little to change the unfolding course of events. Alex’s lower torso buckled, throwing him directly into the path of the train.
Where once he had expected to see Anna standing, he saw only indistinct forms on the platform, imagining them to be vengeful members of the Russian proletariat, striking down their merciless capitalist exploiter.
THE LIGHTS OUTSIDE THE LENINGRAD STATION FLICKERED, BEGAN TO GROW DIM,
AND THEN WERE EXTINGUISHED FOREVER.
THE OTH SIDE ER OF T TRACHE KS
he gently lyrical Moscow snowflakes continued to fall on the tracks outside, seemingly impervious to the scenes of widespread distraction at the Leningrad Station. An exuberantly overstuďŹ€ed suitcase lay open on the tracks, its contents flung out on the cold, snow-lined ground. And, next to it, lay the huddled, forlorn and grey shape of what appeared to be a man, nestled close by to the tracks of the Red Arrow train. The dublyonka was the unmistakable shape and size of that of our intrepid protagonist, but the carefully stitched exterior of the coat had been rent violently asunder, as if by an implacable arrow that had bent sinister from the sure hand of a deathly totalitarian archer. There are events in our life of which we can only surmise how they started and how they must end. There are also, bound within the soul of the mysterious Russian nation, a host of infuriatingly complex influences which have the power to drive to distraction even the most diligent and discerning students of history â€“ especially if those students of history are of the variety that have always populated the bucolic campuses of the most prestigious colleges and universities along the Eastern seaboard of America. Which is to say, the future destiny of our hero had been forever changed by one of the many Russian holy fools who wander the tragic rail stations of our souls. These fools, watched over by Providence, appear only at the threshold moments of our lives that connect the seen and the unseen,
the known and the unknown. They are our unwitting and, indeed, most improbable, connection to the possibilities that lay on the other side of our earth-bound reality. Up to the moment that Alex had nearly lost his foothold on the earthly realm, an unnoticed and little regarded individual of uncertain origin had remained hidden in the shadowy recesses of the Leningrad Station, staggering from the inebriating eďŹ€ects of a particularly intoxicating bottle of Russian vodka. In his previous life, of course, this individual had been very much noticed and regarded, but such are the unfortunate circumstances that bind us to this earth in untold ways. Dear reader, these unknown persons of uncertain origin are so common in the New Russia of today that the bureaucratic oďŹƒcials of the capital, in their all-knowing wisdom, have even assigned an acronym to them: BOMZH, a homeless person of undetermined origin. While it is a fashion, of sorts, for any bomzh to grasp closely the neck of a half-liter bottle of vodka with a truculent swagger, this also leaves open the possibility that the hand required for a dramatic rebalancing act on a particularly treacherous patch of ice in the very middle of a snowy Russian winter will not be available at the requisite moment. In the case of our bomzh wandering the Leningrad Station, the shabby mittens that once grasped
the bottle of vodka in a vise-like hold had lost their grip at the very moment when the first tender drops of vodochka were about to fulfill his historical right to imbibe natureâ€™s golden rye, which had been distilled and bottled in a rather grimy factory on the industrialized outskirts of Moscow.
As the hands of the bomzh reached out to grasp the bottle of vodka - which had by now reached terminal velocity as it hurtled to the ground – they instead landed on the dublyonka of our protagonist Alex. With all the force of a mighty Cossack, he had pushed Alex to safety, out of the path of the oncoming Red Arrow train, sending him and his suitcase sprawling on the cold, packed snow outside on the rail tracks of the Lenin Station. As is the fate of so many heroes in Russian literature, the path to true enlightenment must come through one of two means – extreme suﬀering or fateful death. As decreed by Dostoevsky, by Gogol, by Pasternak, by Bulgakov -- the happy ending so commonly found in the works of decadent Western writers is nothing more than an incongruous ideological oddity in Russia. That life must have a happy ending, with all ends neatly tied up, is perhaps the most eﬀective propaganda ever devised by the West. Alex, indeed, had made it to the other side of the tracks. He had narrowly avoided a fateful death, but now contemplated a new kind of suﬀering that he feared he must face alone. Staring up into the dark Moscow winter night, he thought only of Anna. Without her, his life must take on a new direction.
Comprehension, usually so quick to Alex’s face, came only slowly. He felt only the hard, perspiring breath of our bomzh lying alongside him, as if their fates were now bound together. In his semi-conscious state, he could not locate the source of his physical pain. Instead of the angelic face of our mysterious and beautiful Anna, he was confronted with the craggy visage of our holy fool of unknown origin. “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO HIM…”
the faint sounds of a woman’s voice grew ever louder as it approached the crumpled shape of Alex. This voice, oddly familiar, bore all the traces of a pained and aggrieved heart. “WHAT IS TO BE DONE?” The voice was now directly over him, and in Alex’s snow- and blood-streaked vision, the rough and craggy face of the bomzh began its metamorphosis into the beautiful smiling face of his one true love. As Alex began to disentangle himself from his unlikely savior, his body, wracked with pain, began to regain its former self-assurance. Attempting to stand, he glanced over the snowy railway tracks, searching out what he thought must be Anna’s voice. By now, the camouflaged, heavily armed shapes of the local Moscow militsia surrounded Alex, helping him stagger to his feet. The scene of chaos at the Leningrad Station was slowly devolving into order as other wandering hangers-on,
train passengers and otherwise law-abiding citizens hopeful of one last late-night spectacle slowly made their way away from the burgeoning police scene. The woman, bending down on one knee, helped support Alex’s weight as he slowly straightened himself. Embracing him unfamiliarly, she saw his eyes flicker with recognition, as if with some hidden knowledge that had not been there last night at the Moscow Propaganda Club. Perhaps Alex had been too eager to whisk Anna away to a new life in New York, not fully comprehending the barriers that still remained to their happiness. Alarmed by this new recklessness, Anna had hesitated in her original plans to meet him at the Leningrad Station. Arriving well after their appointed 11:30 meeting – and only minutes before the scheduled arrival of the Red Arrow train, she had raced through the station, oblivious to the shouting, the rough treatment at the hands of strange passersby – knowing that only minutes separated her from Alex and her one true love. Stepping through the throngs of passengers gathering their packages and suitcases for the long overnight journey to Moscow’s northern sister, she had glimpsed as if in a dream the unfolding events as the Red Arrow train had hurdled ahead to its destination, impervious to any notion that it had the power to change forever the destiny of our pair of young lovers.
Alex, brushing oﬀ the blood-mottled snow from his pants and dublyonka coat with some hesitancy, looked up at the swirling snow dancing majestically in the luminous rail station lights and contemplated anew his life: “I WILL GO ON IN THE SAME WAY, CHASING MY SAME DREAMS, LOSING MY TEMPER WITH MY COLLEAGUES AT WORK, EXPRESSING MY OPINIONS TOO VIOLENTLY WITH MY LOVED ONES. I SHALL STILL BE UNABLE TO UNDERSTAND THE FULL MEANING OF WHAT LIFE IS TELLING ME. He paused before continuing: “BUT MY LIFE NOW, MY WHOLE LIFE APART FROM ANYTHING THAT CAN HAPPEN TO ME, EVERY MINUTE OF IT IS NO MORE MEANINGLESS, AS IT WAS BEFORE,
BUT IT HAS THE POSITIVE MEANING OF GOODNESS, WHICH I HAVE THE POWER TO PUT INTO IT."
A SPECIAL THANKS TO THE ART HOUSE CO-OP AND THE BROOKLYN ART LIBRARY For encouraging the creation of a narrative fictional work that combines writing with art in a new way. This unique collaborative approach extends the notion of what a book can be to something far more powerful â€“ a creative platform for both the analog and digital world.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The author would like to thank the innumerable individuals in both New York and Moscow who made this work possible, with a special thanks to his mother and father, who continually encouraged him to become a writer. A special thanks also to former colleagues and professors at Yale and Princeton who encouraged the study of Russian literature and art.
A NOTE ON RUSSIAN CONSTRUCTIVISM
he use of color, imagery and lines throughout After Hours at the Moscow Propaganda Club are based on the principles of Russian Constructivism. In the years following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova were leading figures in the avante-garde art movement known as Russian Constructivism. These artists developed a unique stylistic vocabulary and aesthetic of their own, convinced that these new forms of art could play a key role in transforming society and reorganizing everyday life. The Constructivist movement influenced nearly every aspect of art, including publishing, painting, photography, cinema and design.
PROPAGANDA RED SQUARE