Biographies & Memoirs

15. White Night

THE PRESENT PERFECT TENSE is not really present,” I say to my private student Svetlana, who is focusing on my mouth with such intensity that my ears begin to burn. “It is really past, but you feel its consequences in the present. Like what happens in life—you have left a good job, one that would have made you coordinator for all capitalist countries, and yet you still feel uncertain about whether you’ve done the right thing.” I write the auxiliary have in her notebook followed by the past participle left. “Give me an example,” I say.

“I have already read Crime and Punishment,” says Svetlana eagerly, a seventeen-year-old with the pimply face of a diligent student who has most likely finished the curriculum-prescribed novel well ahead of her teacher’s assignment schedule.

Svetlana tries very hard, pushed by her father, a senior engineer and a party member, who is embarrassed to use a private teacher not authorized by law. But he is also keen on his daughter passing a college entrance foreign language exam, so he has hired me (an example of present perfect: a past action with results in the present) and he is now “looking the other way.” That was what he said when we met for the first lesson, “You were highly recommended, although this is a gray area. So I’m going to look the other way.”

Instead of having lessons in an apartment, mine or Svetlana’s, we meet in an empty university classroom, a condition set by her father. His face twitches when he hears the word “private” pared with “tutoring”—a little spasm that ripples through his cheek—and meeting on the university grounds legitimizes for him, if only in part, turning to the educational black market.

My friend Nina and I are recommended as private tutors through the university’s elaborate network of word-of-mouth references and connections. We started tutoring at the end of our second year and are now referred to those in need of private lessons by our most prestigious English professors who, in their British-accented voices, describe us as “highly capable young girls.”

Working three hours a day in the nonexistent private sector, we make more money than the head of our department. We make a lot of rubles, but the irony is that despite our “accumulation of wealth”—the plague of every capitalist country, as we know from our scientific communism textbook—there isn’t much to spend our wealth on. The clothing stores are full of gray coats, the shoe stores overflow with black vinyl contraptions that mangle feet, and the cosmetic departments offer hand mirrors in red plastic frames and dry black mascara that cakes on eyelashes in toxic clumps.

The only exception is perfume. Not unlike our bakeries, which are somehow still able to produce excellent bread, our perfume factories have cracked the fragrance code, flooding the stores with whimsically shaped bottles of exquisite scents in silk-lined boxes that look like they should be lying on the counters in the Champs-Elysées. I try to imagine the Champs-Elysées, which is translated into Russian as Elysee Fields, but the image doesn’t make sense. I see vast fields covered with grass, like the fields behind our dacha, with clumps of sorrel and a Gypsy bull tethered to a suspiciously flimsy stick. But how can such fields—with or without bulls or sorrel—also have the world’s most decadent shops? I don’t know the answer, but I am grateful to our chemists that a new, complicated fragrance called “White Night” is sloshing in its bottle at the bottom of my bag.

Every month I feel the uneasy presence of Svetlana’s father in the fan of bank notes the girl awkwardly hands me at the end of the class, the same way I handed the money to my tutor Irina Petrovna when I was ten. The bright shreds of paper—red, blue, and purple—will provide me with a new bottle of perfume. I would rather buy a jar of mayonnaise or a pair of boots, but these hopes are as devoid of reality as my conversational English class at the university that teaches us how to book a hotel room for an impossible trip to London.

I bring my bottle of “White Night” to the next lesson with Svetlana. It is a beautiful bottle, a little trapezoid with a soaring glass neck that is meant to be touched to the delicate skin of elegant women. It evokes a lot of things we only know about from books: crinolines and curls and countesses’ pale shoulders, fainting debutantes and their maids, decadence and turmoil, young noblemen brandishing swords to affirm their honor, reckless hussars in tight uniforms and mustaches, country estates with vast orchards as dense as forests, idleness and pleasure, an alley of oak trees with a bench in the laced shade of their leaves, a peasant boy with a secret letter, troikas and Gypsies with their guitars and flowing hair, churches with gold steeples piercing the winter sky, a messenger on horseback buried by a blizzard, a pack of borzois leaping across a meadow, duelists lowering their pistols, honor and duty, sophistication and grace, “private” and “privacy”—words that even Irina Petrovna didn’t know, that are so alien to us that the Russian language of today does not codify them as linguistic entities.

I lift the glass top out of the “White Night” bottle and touch it to Svetlana’s wrist, then to mine, so we can both pretend that we are elegant and worldly, that we belong in the previous century, that we know something about privacy.

I think of the film War and Peace, a four-part epic as grandiose as the novel, which filled our movie screens a few years earlier. That was the world into which the “White Night” perfume would fit perfectly, but Svetlana and I would not. In the lavish film version, for which a hefty part of our army had to be pulled out of their barracks, dressed in nineteenth-century uniforms, and ordered to march in front of cameras and smoke machines, there was no place for people like me, who eat borsch and kotlety out of the same plate, who wouldn’t know what to say if a stranger—not a neighboring prince, but let’s say a fellow university tutor—knocked on the door and introduced himself. I wouldn’t have at my disposal any of those graceful empty phrases that effortlessly slipped from noble tongues. I come from peasant stock, and no prince or count from the long roster of Tolstoy’s characters would have wasted his time looking in my direction.

My university friend Nina has deep aristocratic roots. I imagine her childhood passing in Chekhov’s dachas behind white, gauzy curtains blowing in the summer breeze, her aunts teaching her how to use proper eating utensils, her grandmother instructing her in how to entertain guests and carry on a conversation, her mother reading poetry in French from an old leather-bound book, a family heirloom passed down from a great-grandmother who adored Verlaine.

I envy Nina’s childhood with dark, seething envy. I wish my parents had come from nobility. I wish my dacha had white, gauzy curtains instead of peeling windowsills covered with dead flies; I wish we spent nights sitting around a table sheathed in crisp linen, not an oilcloth with a pattern of sunflowers smudged from wear; I wish we discussed etiquette instead of lugging buckets of water to the beds of tomatoes and dill. I wish my mother had been born in Leningrad, instead of being transplanted here middle-aged, too late to become one of its intelligentsiya.

Besides Nina, the only other person who wouldn’t be banished from War and Peace is my aunt Mila. She is my mother’s cousin once removed, so she isn’t really my aunt, but whatever she is to me on the genealogical tree of our family, I look forward to her yearly visits in June, when she stays with us for about a month to partake of Leningrad’s culture and its white nights.

Aunt Mila is about sixty and lives in Minsk, where the nights are black all year round. She wears elegant silky dresses, and she becomes serious and lifts her chin whenever she peers into a mirror, powdering her face with an old-fashioned puff that releases little white clouds of talc. Aunt Mila isn’t married and lives in her brother’s family apartment, in a room just big enough for her single bed. It might as well be a communal apartment, she says; the food she buys promptly disappears unless she takes it directly to her room and hides it. I’ve never lived in a communal apartment, but I know from friends and books about the motley world of cramped kitchens with four rickety stoves and a common washroom (if you’re lucky enough to have a washroom) with a rusty bathtub marked by a stripe of grime, about neighbors spitting into each other’s pots of soup and refrigerators towering next to beds because you can’t risk leaving your food in the kitchen open to anyone’s cravings. Aunt Mila doesn’t have space for a refrigerator in her room, so she hides her food inside a nightstand. She doesn’t like to talk about her life with her brother’s family, about tiptoeing around and hiding food, so when my mother prods her for details or throws up her arms in indignation at her relatives’ impudence, Aunt Mila changes the subject and talks about Pushkin.

“You can be a useful person and still think about the beauty of your nails,” she recites from a poem that has never entered our school curriculum. I like Aunt Mila as much as I like Pushkin’s wisdom. One can be as serious and accomplished as my mother and, at the same time, spend an hour teasing your thin, flat hair or applying a newly bought eye shadow, mixing the two available colors so that you don’t look like a corpse—all without feeling guilty that instead you should be weeding radishes or standing in line for milk.

But then it turns out that Pushkin, with his virtuous Tatiana, and Tolstoy, with his innocent Natasha, were not as righteous as our textbooks portray them to be, after all. Aunt Mila, who was a literary critic and a writer before she became eligible for a state pension at the age of fifty-five, tells me things you won’t find in any textbook. Pushkin, who she says wouldn’t let a woman pass by without conquering her, is responsible for writing not only Eugene Onegin but also a volume of poems so indecent they couldn’t be printed anywhere, let alone a school textbook. Meanwhile, the official Pushkin, after excelling at an exclusive school thirty kilometers from Petersburg, went on, until he was shot in a duel at the age of thirty-seven, to become the paragon of literary virtue, busy revolutionizing Russian poetry and fighting against the tsar’s oppression. Are they two different men, one a pillar of propriety who stares from a portrait, the other a debauchee and a rake? Is this new, shameless Pushkin the same poet who wrote the scene in which Tatiana says to her beloved Onegin that she has married another man and will be forever faithful to her husband? Aunt Mila shrugs and gives me a vague smile.

But she doesn’t stop at Pushkin. She has stories to tell about half the classic authors who used to stare down from my literature classroom walls. The official, textbook Turgenev wrote about the moral conflict between personal happiness and duty and about lishnie lyudi, useless people. Like everyone else, I had to learn by heart the stories from his Hunter’s Notes, descriptions of pale Russian birches and limpid smoke from peasants’ huts that went on for pages of single-spaced print and could only have been written, as my teacher Nina Sergeevna insisted, by a true Russian writer with a deep connection to his motherland and its nature, by a man with a profoundly Russian soul. According to Aunt Mila, the real Turgenev spent his whole adult life abroad, chasing a married opera singer across Europe, not giving a bit of thought to the fate of serfs, called dushi—the same word in Russian as “souls.” My aunt’s Turgenev had plenty of souls, all cowering out of sight in his estate back in the old country.

Aunt Mila loves white nights, and on the evenings when the usual Leningrad clouds are swept away toward Finland, we take a walk after my mother switches off the television and goes to bed. Aunt Mila cannot sleep anyway, she says, because even at midnight the light shines in her eyes, as bright as at midday. As we stroll past St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Admiralty, the sun melts into the roofs and disappears behind the Nevsky façades, only to rise again before she can even tell me all about Herzen. We are walking along Herzen Street, past the pedagogical institute that also bears his name. That Herzen, as everyone knows, subverted the tsarist government from Siberian exile while writing an endless memoir called My Past and Thoughts. He accomplished his historic destiny “to unleash revolutionary agitation” after the Decembrists’ uprising of 1825 woke him up from aristocratic amnesia, a quote by Lenin we all had to memorize at the start of the eighth grade.

But Aunt Mila’s Herzen, instead of unleashing revolutionary agitation, shuttles from Paris to London, first with his wife, Natasha, and then with his friend’s wife, also named Natasha, having more and more children. We should feel sorry for Alexander Herzen, Aunt Mila says. He was an émigré, just like Turgenev and Bunin and all the rest, émigrés by choice or by decree. They all looked back, she adds with a sigh; they all missed Russia. Their souls (not to be confused with their serfs) were turned eastward.

I don’t know why Aunt Mila, who has to hide food in a nightstand drawer in her own country, thinks that Russian émigrés were all miserable. Would I be miserable if I were forced to live in Paris or London? If, instead of lining up for bologna or cucumbers, I had to choose between something called an artichoke and something called shrimp? If I could walk into a bookstore and find any book on its shelves—any book title one could dredge out of memory—even stories by Nabokov or poems by Mandelstam, even Pushkin’s volume of shameless poetry?

But Aunt Mila isn’t swayed by my questions. That’s where the word “nostalgia” comes from, she insists. Looking back at your homeland. Looking back at those birch trees and peasant huts, commemorating them in stories that students in literature classes will have to learn by heart a century later. Looking back and remembering things that used to seem insignificant and small: a wisp of smoke curling from a chimney into the frosty sky, for example, or your mother’s figure growing bigger on the dacha road until you find yourself burying your face in her soft belly under a polyester dress with a red apple print.

ALTHOUGH A PERMANENT JOB is still a condition for attending the university, I don’t have to look for one. My friend Nina supplied us both with required papers falsely testifying that we had employment. Because of her family roots, Nina knows translators from the Union of Writers, one of the few Soviet organizations familiar with the word “private.” Its members are officially allowed to employ private secretaries, and Nina, with the help of her mother, has located two members of the Writers Union who agreed to produce the two phony letters.

With this arrangement, I can wake up late to sit in the kitchen with Aunt Mila, drink my mother’s gray coffee, and talk about theater and books. In an elegant gesture—I’m not sure what makes it elegant, but it is the opposite of my mother’s broad, authoritarian reach—Aunt Mila lifts a slice of bread out of the basket in the middle of the table and looks around, holding the bread between her fingers as if it were a brittle work of art.

“Galochka,” she addresses my mother, who is pouring milk over her bowl of cottage cheese, “could I have a little plate?”

My mother, who doesn’t understand why anyone would waste a plate for a dry slice of bread, stops by the cupboard and pulls out a saucer. I know what she is thinking: there will be one more dish to wash. She has a little frown curling her eyebrows, the same expression I see when every day Aunt Mila locks herself in the bathroom and lets the water run for what seems like an hour, at least to my mother.

“There is Mila again,” she says, with reproach that makes her voice metallic and high, “splashing like a duck.” My mother doesn’t say this because she needs to use the occupied bathroom, but because Aunt Mila is doing something that my mother regards as decadent and unnecessary. Taking a bath every day, and now a plate for a slice of bread.

I am not sure I see the point of depositing bread on a separate plate either, when I can simply lean it against my cup, but if Aunt Mila is doing it, there must be one. She must have a whole stack of plates in her room in Minsk, I think, to hold all that food she keeps in her nightstand drawer.

When she doesn’t talk about War and Peace or Eugene Onegin, she talks about fairy tales. She still does occasional work for the Minsk radio station overseeing children’s programs; she has recorded stories about Tsarina the Frog and Ivan the Fool and only recently finished the tale about Emelya the Lazy Bones. As Aunt Mila praises the richness of Russian folklore, a question slithers into my mind and waits for Mila’s melodious voice to pause. There is a whole brigade in our folktales of characters who are incapable, sick, ugly, dumb, hunchbacked, or otherwise challenged. Yet they are the ones who seem to get all the spoils at the end. A frog turns into a princess; Ivan the Fool snatches the Firebird; Emelya the Lazy Bones manages to show his brothers how to instantaneously harvest wheat—all without leaving his bed atop a Russian stove.

The question I have is this: Why is it always Ivan the Fool who gets the kingdom, and not the smart, learned princes or brave, sensible knights? Why—contrary to what is written in the Young Pioneer and Komsomol codes—is it always the lazy Emelya, not his hardworking brothers, who manages to catch the magic pike? I’m just about to open my mouth and ask Aunt Mila, but my mother enters the kitchen, a raincoat cinched around her hefty middle, to remind us that we shouldn’t touch the kotlety she cooked last night and piled into a bowl on the refrigerator’s lower shelf. “They’re for dinner tomorrow,” she says. “Today we must finish the macaroni in the red pot.”

And though we’ve been eating the soggy macaroni for the last three days, and though Aunt Mila is a guest who, in my opinion, is worthy of the newly made meat kotlety, I don’t say anything. This is how it has been in our house for as long as I can remember: you finish the old food first, even if in the meantime the freshly made kotlety grow stale. This is the way it is. This is the way we are here, with our unquestioned rules and ancient inertia as thick as Leningrad’s swamps.

I think of my mother, the one in the portrait her brother painted before he died, wondering if that person with the ironic smile, my young mother, would have complained about a bread plate or insisted on finishing old macaroni first. Judging by her curled lips and the radiant eyes that give the portrait a strange incandescent glow, I don’t think she would have. But what is it that wiped that smile off her face and dimmed the luster in her eyes? Was it the war, the wayward husbands, the two dead brothers? Or did it happen later, when my father got sick and needed a hospital and they refused to admit him? My mother knocked on the door of every party boss in Leningrad, until finally one issued an order to let him in for one week. A special ukaz, a personal decree for a special party member.

How resentful my mother must have felt on that summer day ten years ago, how powerless and humiliated. Yet she demanded and pressed and fought, in her usual way—the only way she’d learned to achieve anything in our country. “From a lousy sheep at least a wisp of wool,” she said with a bitter smile when she told us the hospital story. So why is it that she still grows silent now, when Marina curses the Culture Ministry, which has closed another controversial play, or when I mock the absurd topics in our textbook called English Conversation? Why does she defend the party that has betrayed her?

I no longer feel like asking Aunt Mila about our fairy-tale characters. After all, I am no less lazy than Emelya the Lazy Bones. I pretend, like everyone else; I don’t confront anyone with any questions. For keeping quiet, I collect my privately earned rubles and learn all I want about English. For finishing the old macaroni first, I get to eat real meat kotlety the next day. So when I hear my mother leave for work, the question about the dumb and lazy characters getting rewards for their stupidity and sloth freezes on my tongue and sinks back into my throat.

WHEN MY TUESDAY STUDENTS come for their lesson, Aunt Mila goes out for a walk. They are a married couple, Roman and Malvina, both doctors. Out of my six private students, they are the only ones who choose to come to my apartment, and that’s because they are Jewish and are learning English in the hope that they will be allowed to emigrate. They cannot possibly have their twenty-nine-year-old daughter stumble onto our English lesson and discover that their minds are harboring such a subversive thought; if she does, they are afraid she may alert the authorities and report their desire to emigrate to their employers. A convulsion of panic twitches throughout Malvina’s body when she mentions the possibility of being fired and disgraced even before they are allowed to file an application to leave. Her face trembles; her shoulders curl and tears surge to her eyes. Her husband covers her hand with his fleshy palm, her sigh the only display of their common despair.

Then Malvina shakes her head as though to shake off dark thoughts. Springs of her black hair quiver around her face; her slim body is once again erect in its defiance. In a blue dress and a silky bright scarf, she looks like an exotic bird that landed on a patch of dirt on its way to sunnier shores. Roman is big and language-deaf; his mouth does not want to contort to form alien sounds, and he lets Malvina speak for both of them. She memorizes vocabulary lists for herself and her husband, and he simply accepts it as another gift from her, laughing at his lack of language ability, the phlegmy laugh of a chain-smoker.

I teach them how to make a doctor’s appointment, how to book a train ticket, one-way and round-trip, how to buy a coat and ask a preposterously polite salesperson from the chapter on shopping to show you to something called a fitting room to try it on. I teach them all I know, all I think they will need to know if they are fortunate enough to succeed. It’s all pure chance from now on: they will be lucky if they don’t lose their jobs; if the visa department accepts their applications; if their daughter, after she realizes that being related to traitors holds such advantages as being able to receive parcels from the West, signs away her objections to their leaving the country; and finally—what would be the greatest luck of all—if the visa department, after scrutinizing their papers and stripping them of Soviet citizenship, issues a permit allowing them to leave.

I wonder whether Malvina and her husband will miss this place with that intense nostalgia Aunt Mila insists was scratching inside the souls of our émigré literary classics. What will my students miss after they step out of the plane in an abstract foreign airport with the allowed forty kilograms of luggage comprising their entire life? After two years in lines in militia and visa offices, after they’ve been publicly humiliated and denounced here, will they miss anything at all? From the mystic avenues of the unfathomable West, will they ever look back at the worn gray pages of this silly conversation textbook in the middle of this table covered with oilcloth, at this milky evening light—the light Pushkin commemorated in verse—pouring through the open window? Will they ever look back at me?

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