IN DECEMBER 2007, PRESIDENT PUTIN ENDED A PERIOD OF POLITICAL uncertainty by announcing that he would step down after his second term of office. This must have triggered fierce squabbles over spoils at the top. For the information spilled out that Putin had amassed a personal fortune of $40 billion, making him the richest man in Europe.
His favored successor was Dmitri Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and chairman of Gazprom. In May Medvedev duly took up office, having been endorsed by the electorate. Putin assumed the post of prime minister.
No one knew how this novel combination was going to affect the political scene. The West and Russia’s liberals were encouraged by the fact that Medvedev was a lawyer by training and did not come from a security background. They hoped that his appearance might herald a period of liberalization and long-overdue institutional reform. But since Medvedev lacked any power base of his own, it was not clear how he could pursue any independent political program, in the short term at least.
The campaign against corruption which Medvedev announced was a good example. It was the right objective: a third of the country’s annual budget was being eaten up by corrupt officials, according to one official source. But how could such a campaign be effective without incriminating the very elite to which he belonged, and without rolling back the centralization of the last eight years?
However, as long as the economy was booming, all things seemed possible. By June, the price of oil had doubled in a twelvemonth period, reaching $147 a barrel in the following month. Russia’s economy looked set to grow by more than 7 percent. Now at last the country could afford to make the massive social investment that was required across the country’s crumbling infrastructure, from pensions, education, and health to the armed forces. The means were there for Russia to transform itself from a corrupt, autocratic energy state into a confident, knowledge-based economy.
But in practice, there was little sign that the regime had the political will for much beyond self-enrichment. Despite the boom, cracks were already showing in the edifice. Quite apart from the corruption, inflation was slipping into double figures. In July, the stock market shuddered and fell by 5 percent after Prime Minister Putin made critical remarks about the steel company Mechel: no one had forgotten that the state’s dismemberment of Khodorkovsky’s mammoth company, Yukos, which produced 20 percent of Russia’s oil, started in this way.
Then, on August 7, Georgia’s President Saakashvili made a determined bid to regain control of the autonomous region of South Ossetia. After six days of heavy fighting, Georgian troops were repulsed. Russian tanks fanned out over Georgia and proceeded to destroy the country’s newly modernized armory.
Brief though it was, Russia’s war with Georgia transformed the political scene. It was Russia’s 9/11, proclaimed President Medvedev. The country had “risen from its knees,” the press exulted. The war buried any chance Medvedev might have had of pursuing a more liberal political agenda. It was announced that army funding would rise by 50 percent over the next three years.
However, the regime’s unpopularity was reflected on the international front. Russia had arguably only followed a precedent set by NATO in 1999 when it bombed Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo’s right to self-determination. But nevertheless, it found itself severely isolated by world opinion.
The West’s ally had also played its propaganda well, and the sight of Russian tanks entering Georgia raised old Cold War ghosts. While Europe dithered, caught between distaste and self-interest, America’s press exploded in Russophobia. All this served only to add a strong sense of grievance to the triumphalist mood back in Russia.
But world attention was soon diverted by the global financial crisis—one which had begun in the United States. Since the collapse of Soviet power, the banner of the free market had been fluttering over the world. Now suddenly it was in shreds. All over the world, markets were crashing. This was a crisis that was going to spare no one. For all the Cold War rhetoric, there was no ideological divide anymore.
By the end of November, the price of oil had fallen from a high of $147 to below $50 a barrel. For Russia’s oil-dependent economy, this was catastrophic. The poor faced hardship, since simply to meet its budgetary commitments the state had to dip into its reserve funds once the oil price fell below $70 a barrel. The rich were not spared either: Russia’s once booming stock market dropped 70 percent between May and November, the steepest decline of any worldwide.
HOW ABOUT A RIDDLE?
Russia’s troops had not yet pulled back from Georgia when I boarded the sleeper from Moscow to Saratov. For the first time in all these years, I was apprehensive of the reception that awaited me in Saratov. How would my friends have responded to the war? Would they, too, have retreated behind a firewall of patriotic indignation? Although my three companions, young professionals from Saratov, looked pleasant enough, I retreated quickly behind the newspapers, wary of conversation.
I had reckoned without the lithe, dark-haired woman sitting opposite. “Right, I’m Masha,” she said, shutting the door decisively and tucking her legs away under her. She was deputy director of a big Saratov factory which made soft cheese and margarine, she told us, and she was on her way home from a refresher course in Moscow. All three of them had been in the capital for similar reasons, it turned out. “What are we going to talk about?” Masha went on. “How about a riddle?” “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” groaned the large-boned young man next to me, who ran part of Saratov’s pension fund. His suit was one size too large and his fair hair kept flopping over his clever face. “Let’s talk about Muscovites.” They proceeded to savage Muscovites as lazy, spoiled parasites, who raked in the money while a wretched, invisible black labor force of central Asians somewhere on the outskirts did the real work.
I had just been reading about the Russian stock market, which had lost 50 percent of its value in a matter of days. The day I flew into Moscow, Wall Street plunged to its lowest since 9/11. I asked my companions how much all this was going to affect them. All three laughed: “Do you really imagine people like us have got stocks and shares?” Masha asked. “Well, with the petrodollar boom …” I began. “What boom?” floppy-haired Petr cut in. “It’s an illusion. Things are awful. Have been for ages. Inflation’s far worse than they’re letting on. It’s those Muscovites. They’re the problem. They’re the only ones with money, and they’ve got so much they don’t know where to put it.
“Property’s gone crazy in Saratov. They’re buying it up sight unseen—land, houses, you name it. They’ll ring up: ‘It’s on the Volga, is it? I’ll take it.’ For the rest, middle class included, it’s grim. Friends of mine have been selling off their DVDs and home computers just to pay the rent!” Masha and the young engineer agreed; the so-called boom had lifted the oil elite and those who serviced it onto another planet, leaving the rest of Russia behind.
The ample woman in charge of our compartment brought around glasses of tea. I thought back to all the train journeys over the last sixteen years which had carried me across Russia’s two continents and eleven time zones in search of friends and in pursuit of ideas. Sometimes in the nineties there was no tea, only hot water. Sometimes the collective anxiety was such that even the tribe of trusty railway stewards seemed suspect. Were they in cahoots with the gangs who were said to be robbing people in their sleep, bundling bodies off trains at dead of night?
Now at least we ate confidently from the food boxes provided. Back then no one trusted that food of unknown provenance was not part of some money-making scam that would leave them poisoned.
Masha, as if responding to these unspoken thoughts, nudged us back into conversation: “If you could choose a favorite moment, between the end of Soviet power and now, when would it be? I’d choose ‘92–’93. I don’t care what anybody says—I loved it. It was a unique time. Just for a moment a person could think for themselves, be free.” I flashed her a grateful smile. These days it was fashionable to maintain that the idea of freedom was meaningless, a mere window dressing for Western imperialism.
“Well, I was only seven,” began the quiet, doe-eyed engineer. Petr interrupted: “I don’t agree. All I saw was fear and insecurity. Don’t get me wrong—I hate the way things are now. But you have to admit—it suits the Russian people. What do you expect? It’s only a hundred and fifty years since we had serfdom. People would still rather be owned. Before anything changes they’re going to have to want more freedom. As it is, the old days are back—I’m sure you realize that there’s a KGB person in every company again?”
“Well, there’s certainly not one in our factory—”
“Take a closer look. The Party’s back—it’s just the name that’s changed.” Petr was talking about Putin’s party, Edinaya Rossiya. “For two years they nagged me to join up. I refused. In the end they wore me down. OK, I said, I’ll make a deal. I’ll join, but on one condition—you’ve got to agree not to pressure any of my staff—they’re not management, why the hell should they join? So far they’ve stuck to it. Turned out I was the only person in the entire ranks of management who’d been holding out! As for those vast, corrupt monopolies at the top, it’ll take a couple of generations to break them up.”
This time there was a long silence. The train lumbered through a country station. An image from a news report of the recent war flashed through my mind. A truck full of raw conscripts with terrified faces was heading into Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian town which Georgian troops had attacked. Conscripts who came from backwoods places like this.
“How about a riddle, then?” asked Masha brightly. What was it with this woman and riddles? “No! Let’s talk about the war!” Petr whipped back. “No. Absolutely not,” Masha cut in, too quickly.
Then I understood. That was what the riddles were about. Like me, she was worried that the war was going to divide us, rupture the harmony of our carriage. “Fine! Let’s talk about the war!” I surprised them by saying. “You want to know what I think? They’re all wantonly irresponsible—Georgians, Russians, Americans. I’d rather be governed by nine-year-olds.”
They looked at me in astonishment, all three of them, then started gabbling at once. Yes, the only people who benefited by the war were the leaders, and yes, this was only the beginning, it was going to get worse … The relief was palpable, and it touched us all. They hadn’t expected my reaction, and I hadn’t expected theirs.
“Can you believe it?” piped up the doe-eyed young engineer. “A friend of my father’s bought this suit the other day. When he got home he looked at the label. ‘Made in the US. 50 percent linen 50 percent cotton’ it read. Then ‘Sorry our President’s such an idiot.’ ” We fell about laughing, with the solidarity of the powerless.
“Now will you let me pose my riddle?” Masha asked. This time we relented. “Two women are standing at a market stall which sells pigeons. One says to the other, ‘I’ve got two children under school age.’ ” Masha was off and running. I hated riddles. “Their combined ages are the number of pigeons on that stall. How old are they? And by the way, my oldest’s called Borya.”
For my own part, I had never intended to spend so many years puzzling over a different, insoluble riddle, the one Churchill famously posed. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” he told the British after declaring war on Germany, when it was not clear which side Russia would join. “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” It still was the key. But the answer to the riddle came out very different, depending how you defined that national interest.
The three of them argued over the riddle with an engaging degree of enthusiasm while the train rumbled on over the darkening steppe. Out came the paper and pen. At one point Masha, suddenly unsure whether it really was solvable, rang her boss. “Haven’t you got anything better to do with your Friday evening?” her boss grumbled. We took to our berths without having found the answer.
Meanwhile, I had been reading the papers. There was an article about the Tunguska meteor, whose mysterious site I had passed on the trip into the taiga to visit the Old Believers. All this time, no one had been able to work out how such an enormous object—some fifty to one hundred meters across—could have hit the earth without leaving a crater. Was it a UFO, dark matter, a nuclear explosion? Now, a hundred years after the event, two Russian scientists had come up with a mathematical model which proved how the asteroid, or comet perhaps, had disintegrated into tiny fragments on its way into the earth’s atmosphere, exploding and bouncing away from the earth’s surface while barely having touched it. One mystery solved.
Others were going to remain unsolved. I had no reason to doubt the chilling warnings of my enchanting Professor Kaznacheev about the dangers of mind-control weapons, designed to manipulate people’s mental functions at a distance. Indeed, they were substantiated when the Duma banned the use of such weapons on Russian territory in June 2001. Since then, discussion about them had dried up in Russia. In the United States, there was no proof that the government had ever developed such weapons. They stuck to their line that no such technology existed, or that all such information was subject to the law on national security. Congressman Dennis Kucinich had introduced a bill in the House of Representatives in 2001 that would have obliged the president to start negotiations on the international ban for which Russia and the EU had been pressing. But it got nowhere.
In the middle of night, when the men were asleep, Masha leaned down to me from the berth above with a bit of paper covered in equations. She had finally worked out the answer to her riddle. Lucky her. I was still a long way off finding an answer to mine: how long were the Russian people going to endorse the idea that Putin’s “sovereign democracy” was in their national interest?
THE WORM TURNS
It was a sunny Sunday, and Tatiana was driving us out to Marx in her smart jeep to visit Misha’s mother. Her daughter Nadya, who was now twelve, was whispering to her friend in the back of the car. We were sitting in a traffic jam. These days there were traffic jams all day long in Saratov’s city center; 4×4s and gleaming jeeps like ours sat nose to nose as far as the eye could see. There was plenty of time to register the new dress shops, the Irish pub, the shopping malls, restaurants, and the rash of stylish little cafés. Time enough to register that with a few dazzling exceptions, these frontages had been attached to buildings that looked more derelict than ever.
Saratov was being run by an honest man now, they said. Poor fellow, it was no qualification for running this city. The previous incumbent was sitting in prison, facing fourteen criminal charges, including bribe taking, nondistribution of taxpayers’ money, and exceeding his authority. As for his predecessor, the master crook who had held the job for years before that, people referred to him almost nostalgically now, as of someone who “knew how to get things done.” He had survived all attempts to finger him.
I was in a jaundiced mood. I had come here to see my friends. But with the exception of Tatiana, they seemed to be avoiding me. I had calculated my visit so that Anna and I could spend time together over the weekend. But she had not invited me to stay, and had come up with a flimsy excuse for not joining us in Marx.
The day I arrived, Misha had also left for Germany, prompted by an “unexpected invitation.” Tatiana, of course, had done her best to make up for this by being more loving and attentive than ever. She had lost weight and looked like a tragic queen, stabbed through by an icicle. I dared not ask her about herself.
The roads had improved. Clearly, this had been necessary to expedite the escape of the jeep owners from the sight of the limbless war vets, lurching drunks, piles of rubbish, bedraggled high-rise blocks, overloaded trams, and hollow-eyed grannies begging beneath hoardings advertising holidays in Australia costing only $4,000. Where the jeeps were heading became clear once we reached open country.
Rows of pale, svelte high-rise towers reared up against the Sokolov hills, tall and striking as bulimic models. Around their foot stretched gated estates of gabled houses with vivid russet and blue roofs. These were the homes of the 15 percent who belonged to Russia’s new economy. As in a traditional steppe town the cows peeled off from the herd of an evening and made their way to their own front gate, so those 4×4s peeled off the road to adorn the forecourt of each imposing mansion. Sixteen years ago, when I first came down to Saratov, I little dreamed that Russia’s new beginning would look like this.
Of all my friends, Misha was the one whose dreams had most spectacularly come to fruition during the years I had known him. Before he left on the train we had spent the afternoon together, but it was not long enough. I had come down here intending to celebrate his success. Misha had become a manufacturer entirely by his own efforts, rather than by appropriating a factory, or the wages of people from some factory, as was common in the 1990s. He had started farming at the right time, too, when across Russia people had turned their backs on the collective farms, when millions of acres were lying abandoned.
This time Misha was more affectionate with me, more genuinely present, than I had ever known him. He was looking good, too, younger, having lost a lot of weight. But things on the farm had not been going well, he admitted. “The problem is that the new technology I’ve plowed my profits into hasn’t yielded the results I expected. In fact, it’s been performing badly even by comparison with traditional methods! I’ve lost a lot of money.”
Misha, ever the gambler, had been relying on modern European farming techniques, drilling rather than plowing, as well as using the latest in fertilizers and pesticides, to make the Volga steppe competitive with farms in Russia’s fertile black-earth country. Last year, those black-earth fields yielded 3.3 tons of wheat a hectare, and would yield more when properly managed. He was so far only managing 3 tons a hectare. “I may not be doing it right yet,” he brooded. “I’m a novice at farming—when I started I made every mistake in the book! Or it may be that the local farmers have got a point—they’ve always said my techniques won’t work here. It’s tricky farming country. Time will tell. But this year I’m hedging my bets, farming half my land in the traditional way.”
Misha was being hard on himself, as usual. Three tons a hectare was not at all bad. Overall, the average yield per hectare in this vast, northern land was only 1.85 tons. He had disappointed only his own ambitious expectations.
Last time I had been here, he was fighting a court case. Someone had accused him of selling them on bad seed. He was very worried then. How had that gone, I asked? “Well, I’ve more or less won—the man just didn’t have a case. But the case is dragging on. I’m innocent, but that’s no protection—he’s got powerful contacts. It’s all very tiresome. I’ve got to keep sucking up to these judges, giving them presents, to make sure the case doesn’t come undone again.”
Misha’s real legal headaches lay elsewhere now. Since the price of land had risen, everyone was after it. Of the 1,011 hectares he farmed, some 300 were not his. It was land that belonged to Russian Germans who died or had left for Germany in the early 1990s. It was lying fallow, so Misha started farming it. But people were now coming up with pieces of paper that proved their right to bits of it, or so they claimed. The judges were inclined to give in to these little claims, on the grounds that Misha already had quite enough land. “What’s so frustrating is that I know perfectly well that most of these claims are just a try-on—they’ve got no basis in fact.” This legacy of the chaotic nineties was wearing him down, he complained.
These were all trivial problems, I reflected as the car raced across the steppe to Marx. On either side of the road, vast fields stretched away. Right now, the perspectives for a farmer were extraordinary. Thanks to high global grain prices, the big investors had looked at the map and realized that 8 percent of the world’s cultivable land lay in Russia. They had started investing billions. Land prices here were soaring, but it was still ten times as cheap as land in France. Misha was in the right place at the right time.
Before the Revolution, the Volga had been Russia’s great wheat bowl, and there was no reason why it should not be again. Russia was going to become the world’s largest wheat exporter, and Misha was bound to be part of that success.
Outside Marx, Tatiana and I stopped by a truck piled high with green mottled watermelons. As a lad clambered over the green globes to reach a golden one for us I noticed that Tatiana was frowning. “What’s the matter?” “Nothing. It’s just that I loathe Marx—I’d never come here at all if it weren’t for Lyuba,” she replied. So fast did she whisk through the town center that I noticed only a blur of new shops.
Their house was on the outskirts, in the district where the Soviet bosses used to live. This was the original Thieftown, as opposed to the New Thieftown which had sprung up since the fall of communism. Back then, the grandees used to live here, but now the houses were going cheap. The sight of them made me nostalgic for the old days, when the thieving was so modest. They might have been built by blind men, with their small, awkwardly placed windows and badly laid brick walls festooned with electric cables. They cowered behind tall fences, as though ashamed of their appearance.
Over the gates of one house someone had hoisted lines of doggerel, written in crude, loopy letters. The gist of it was this: “All year I waited for my pension. The postman got so embarrassed he’d be lying, blushing. / Hunger’s no joke. But as you’ll find, prison’s a lot worse. / You may be living it up now, Baguette you bastard! / But you’ll get your comeuppance! / Give us our pensions! We fought for our country!”
“Baguette” was the head of the regional administration. When I first started coming to Marx he was a rough lad who ran a bakery, hence the nickname.
The sound of church music floated out to us as we approached Tatiana and Misha’s house. Tatiana winced: “She plays it day and night. It drives me nuts.” Lyuba, eighty this year, was sitting on the side of her bed, white kerchief around her head, flowered smock, growth stunted by malnutrition, blind eyes closed, folding and refolding her huge, knotted hands in her lap. “Ah, Brooksevna! Brooksevna’s back!” She called me by my father’s name, hugging me fiercely, lavishing a torrent of earthy Ukrainian endearments on me. “How is your husband? Is your daughter married yet? Any grandchildren? In my prayers I remember you all, ask God to give them, the girls, his grace. That your one and Polina should bring us grandchildren.” She had forgotten nothing.
Back then she was weeping every day for her lost home, the rose trees she kept watered through the hot summers, the raspberries and potatoes, the apple trees and the brindled cow. When she arrived four years ago the doctor said she’d not survive long (“they never do, when they’re moved”). She finally came to terms with the move only this summer. “This is where I want to see out my days,” she told me, patting my hand decisively. “The children weren’t good to me, they didn’t want me. But here my heart’s at peace. Tanyochka, my little sunshine, is more of a daughter to me than my own. She never makes me feel I’m a trouble, though I do no work. I pray for her though, for you all, every day. I can peel seeds, too—here, take these.” She fished a bag of sunflower seeds out of her cupboard. “I roasted them myself, too.”
In the evening, Tatiana’s brother, his wife, and their little boy arrived with a sack full of crayfish for our supper. I remembered Tatiana’s sister-in-law as a shy, retiring woman. This time, something about her intrigued me. She occupied the room differently. She had attitude. Yes, she explained as we scrubbed crayfish together, a lot had happened since we last met. She had become one of the moving spirits in a stubborn grassroots revolt in Marx. It was about their daughter’s lycée, the only good school in the district. Eight months ago, Baguette had announced that it was closing. The explanation he gave for the decision was utterly unconvincing. Everyone assumed some developer had paid him fairy-tale sums for the site.
Baguette can never have expected resistance. But out here, what hope people had was vested in their children’s future. That meant education. So the worm turned. The parents got together and took the matter to court. Twice, they won their case. Twice, the judges were bought off and Baguette won. After that, the parents and children simply refused to leave the school. Although the teachers had been reassigned to other schools, they also stayed on, though the gas had been switched off and there was no way of feeding the children. When word got out that trucks were coming to strip the school of furniture overnight, the mothers organized a roster and started spending nights there.
Such was Baguette’s power that not a single deputy from Marx (including the school’s founder, who had gone into local politics) backed the children. Anna had written up the story for her paper. But the paper’s editor rewrote it, to support Baguette’s version. The best Anna could do was remove her name from the article.
This was just a little revolt against those palaces on the hill. It was hardly going to go down in history alongside the great rebellions launched on the Volga by Pugachev and Stenka Razin, which had shaken the Russian empire. But then, as now, grassroots revolts remained the only way ordinary people could make themselves heard by autocratic rulers.
Putin’s government had seen off all legitimate outlets for opposition. But early in 2005, they were badly rattled when thousands of pensioners took to the streets in cities across Russia, protesting at an attempt to “rationalize” their pitiful pensions. Terrified by this massing of the powerless, the government caved in. Here in Marx, with its cult of obedience, this eight-month-long battle by mothers and children must also have sent shock waves through Baguette and his crew. “They’ll win in the end—we’re running out of options,” said Tatiana’s sister-in-law, before adding with a gleam in her eye, “Still, we’ll never be the same. Any of us.” That included Baguette’s own daughter, who was at the school, and had come out against her father.
THE PRICE OF DREAMS
Lyuba was already there, at the head of the table, when we sat down to eat the heaps of pink crayfish. She sat quietly, nibbling at a potato, a diminutive old woman who appeared to be drifting downstream, focused on some drama the rest of us could not see.
Then all of a sudden, in answer to a question of mine, she started talking. She talked about growing potatoes from seed, about preserving tomatoes with the green stem on, but what she said was not the point. Even the children fell silent, watching her pull on the words like oars, as she rowed back against the current toward us.
In the old days, they made dishes, boots, buckets, and clothes, Lyuba was saying. Yes, even the cloth. You’d take the hemp, only the female plants mind, soak them for a month, collect the strong strands, and weave them. That was what she and her mother did of an evening.
That dialect of hers, as rough and dark as freshly plowed earth, conjured up a whole way of life, a peasantry which Russia’s rulers had decided to kill off, in the interests of modernization. There was a time when I had hoped to bring the past of this town, Marx, to life, through the memory of old people. But with a few dazzling exceptions, most of them were too fearful. The past was not a place they dared return to.
In Cherkassk province, eastern Ukraine, before the war there wasn’t much they didn’t grow or make, Lyuba was saying. That included music. Her oldest brother played the fiddle at local weddings. She played the balalaika, like her father. And she sang. She was famous locally. The family would all play together in the evenings. On high days and holidays the villagers would come around to listen, as we were doing now.
Something was happening to Lyuba as she talked. There were pink spots in her cheeks and she spoke with such vigor that she had to keep pushing her white kerchief back over her hair. The years were falling off her. Then all of a sudden she was singing, in a clear, sweet voice. She sang about a husband who beats his wife. “Right, I’ve had it,” says the wife, gets into a little boat, and floats down the River Dunai. Home comes the husband. The children are hungry, the dishes are dirty. Bitterly then does he regret what he’s done. But it’s too late, by that time the River Dunai has carried her far, far away.
Lyuba sang on, singing herself back from the edge of death, back down the years, back under the skin of that vanished peasant life. The tunes were merry, but the words were about violent husbands who got their comeuppance. Songs written by women, wreaking musical vengeance. Only when Tatiana implored her, “Sing something cheerful,” did she pause, stuck to find happiness in the grown-up world, before starting off again on the children’s songs.
While Lyuba was singing, the wood-lined banya next door was sighing and creaking as it heated up. When everyone else had gone to bed, Tatiana and I retired into it. Afterward, light-headed, smelling of honey and wet birch leaves, we floated out to the kitchen and sat in dressing gowns, drinking tea.
“What did you really think about what Misha said about the war?” Tatiana asked me. “It’s exactly what I expected,” I replied, truthfully. Misha had become genuinely emotional on the subject of Russia’s war with Georgia. “You know how critical I can be of this country,” he burst out. “But on this one I’m right behind Medvedev and Putin. There’s a lot this country can learn from the West about how to run itself. I know that. But surely we’ve got the right to defend our own borders from attack! What’s Russia done to the West to deserve being provoked in that way? You tell me that.
“As you know, my family’s from Ukraine. So all this is very close to my heart. Half Ukraine’s population is Russian, or almost. Our language, our culture, it’s practically the same. Whatever that puppet Yushchenko says, there’s no way we’d stand for Ukraine being taken into NATO. It’s rubbish! What’s more, if push comes to shove, the West’s got a lot more to lose from such a conflict than we do. Europe depends on Russian oil and gas! We may not be in great shape domestically. But we’ve got what it takes. We don’t need the West! It’s going to take us a generation or two to sort ourselves out, but we’re smart people—we’re on our way now!”
Misha had indeed been remarkably consistent in his views. In those early days in Marx, when the rest of the group were still stunned by the trampling of their hopes for democracy and freedom in Russia, Misha’s vision had been distinct. A regular guy, a talented sportsman, he did not just long to be rich. Even then, he was dreaming of the day when Russia would be strong again.
It was another of his dreams that had been realized. On entering Gori, in Georgia, the youngest Russian conscript would have known that the one building they could not fire on was the hut where Stalin was born. Back home in Russia, the Georgian had just topped a poll as the country’s all-time favorite hero. As Russia’s tank commanders rumbled into the port of Poti, their heads were full of memories of childhood summers on the Black Sea. The Caucasus was Russia’s Ireland. Putting things to rights there was a task which had occupied her army since the days of Tolstoy and Lermontov.
It was clear from the expression on Tatiana’s face that she did not share her husband’s views on the war. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful,” she proposed. I turned to Lyuba’s dazzling performance. “You know, I’d never heard her sing before,” Tatiana said, before adding enigmatically, “If Misha’d been here, she’d never have been like that.” “What do you mean?” “She felt safe, loved.”
Misha had just rung up from Germany. He was amazed by Tatiana’s account of our evening. He said his mother had sworn she would never sing again, after the last of her brothers died thirty-three years ago—the one who returned from the war, terribly wounded. Until tonight, she had never done so.
I mentioned a strange story Lyuba had told us of how the village healer had brought her mother back from the dead after her accident. “My mother, matushka moya, was only twenty-seven when the lightning got her,” Lyuba told us. “Right down her spine it went. When they brought her in she was a corpse, lifeless. Babushka, her mother that is, started laying her out, but the znazhar said, “Hold it! Don’t be in such a hurry to bury your daughter!” He dug this great hole, buried her up to her neck in the earth for three days and three nights. When they dug her out she was not just alive. She’d recovered the use of her limbs. She could even work, though she remained in great pain.”
I knew that she had killed herself years later, when she could bear the pain no longer. But it was only now that Tatiana told me Misha was the one who found her hanging there. “He was three. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so troubled now,” Tatiana muttered. “I don’t know about that,” I said. “He seemed in rather good form to me.” “You’re right, he was lovely with you, the way he always used to be. But when he’s drunk he’s different. Crude, awful.”
He had started drinking a couple of years ago, she said. Was that because things were going wrong on the farm, I asked Tatiana. “No, it was because he became too confident. He thought he could do it all. He thought he’d got it licked. But now he’s started drinking, he can’t control it. He’s spending more and more of his time down here, with Marx’s local bosses. And that’s what they do when they get together. Drink. They bring him home legless.
“He’s particularly bad with his mother, for some reason. He’s her favorite child. Before, he always used to be so good with her. He’d talk to her, spend time with her. Not anymore. When he’s drunk it’s her he takes it out on. And she, well, she just sits there and takes it.
“I’ve come to admire Lyuba enormously,” Tatiana went on. “She’s not just strong, she’s intelligent. I watch the way she can take a tiny bit of information and use it as the basis for making a much broader judgment. When Misha comes in drunk, she always manages to work out what lies behind it, for instance. And she’s never far from the mark.”
Four years ago, when Misha brought his mother here from Ukraine, the two women were dreading the prospect of living together. Now they had become close allies, mutually supportive in the face of their shared problem. Tatiana’s loving care was what had given Misha’s mother her new lease of life.
As for Misha, who had always been so gentle, such a meticulous manager, the drink was affecting his work, Tatiana said. “When things go wrong he loses his temper, blames it all on his subordinates. He spends time on the farm and the factory starts slipping. He concentrates on the factory, and the farm suffers. But he won’t delegate,” Tatiana sighed. “He’s a maximalist, as you know. He thought he could change everything at once. But what he took on was too much for one person.”
We sat in silence, listening to the creaking of the cooling banya. A cat appeared in the open doorway, stalked around the kitchen, and retired outside to feast on crayfish shells under the full moon. How sad, I thought. Misha had realized his dream. But he had paid too high a price.
His youthful appearance was deceptive, too, Tatiana confided. In fact, he had just spent three weeks in hospital, after being taken ill on holiday in Turkey. Years of unremitting work were taking their toll. The doctors were clear: he’d got to change the way he lived, or else …
As we shut the cat out and headed for bed Tatiana told me that Misha was just about to stand for election in Marx, as a deputy for one of the small opposition parties. If he got in, he would be working with that rogue Baguette. Tatiana sighed: “Sometimes, I look at him and think, yes, Marx has won.”
Early next morning, we climbed into the car and headed back for Saratov, half-awake, driving too fast. Tatiana and I had overslept. Nadya and her friend were going to be late for school. This time, we drove back on the old road, through the town of Engels. A week ago, it was from here that two Tupolev-160s, each carrying twelve nuclear warheads, had taken off bound for Venezuela, bearing the message to the United States that two could play at fomenting trouble on each other’s borders.
Tatiana had been trying to help me reach Natasha and Igor, my own efforts having failed. The war with Georgia had left me worried about them and their underground newspaper in Sevastopol. Suddenly, the derelict naval port was in the geopolitical spotlight. Since its military triumph, Russia was viewing the map differently, as a foreign policy pundit had been telling me in Moscow.
America’s days of unchallenged global supremacy were over, he said. A new, multipolar world would emerge sooner or later, one in which Russia was destined to play a major role. But before that could happen, Uncle Sam was going to have to admit that it had failed in its bid to impose its vision of liberal democracy on the world. Until that happened, the world was going to be a dangerous place. Opportunistic conflicts were bound to break out in places like the Caucasus, borderlands between the spheres of influence.
By any reckoning, Crimea was high up among those potential flashpoints. Russia’s rusting navy still lay in the inlets of Sevastopol. Although Khrushchev had rashly bequeathed the peninsula to his native Ukraine, 59 percent of Crimea’s population was Russian. Russia’s sense of imperial entitlement had been stirred up now. The weaker the economy at home, the more Russia’s leaders would be tempted to find a rousing cause to distract attention from their failures domestically. How long was it going to be before Russia’s military moved to reclaim land where so much Russian blood had been spilled? Perhaps the first move had already been made. For one of Russia’s tame opposition parties had started championing its marooned compatriots in Crimea. They were arguing that Crimea’s Russians should have passports, that they should have the right to work and be educated in Russia.
I would like to have had more confidence that an incumbent President Obama would steer clear of stirring up trouble there. But the worse the US domestic economy became, the more attractive it might seem to keep pressing on with the crazy policy of expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, to include Ukraine and Georgia.
Natasha and Igor had lived their private lives rashly. But I knew my friends well enough to be confident that they would do whatever they could to help Crimea’s Russians resist becoming political pawns. At least there was no history of ethnic tension to exploit between Ukrainians and Russians, as there had been in South Ossetia. The only group in Crimea with a declared interest in separatism were the increasingly politically organized Crimean Tatars, men such as Igor’s friend Evdan. For them, the memory of Stalin’s wholesale deportation in 1944 would never fade. In any conflict, they would always side with Ukraine.
Tatiana had tried ringing Natasha’s sister in Novosibirsk. When she asked for news of Natasha, her sister slammed the phone down. “I’m not surprised,” Tatiana sighed. “In Marx I remember watching Natasha throw away a pile of unopened letters. ‘I don’t know how to manage long-distance friendships,’ she said when I asked her why. ‘They’re just an imitation of friendship.’ ” Knowing how wounded Tatiana had been by the way Natasha broke off contact when she left Saratov, I said quickly: “I don’t know what it is about Natasha. But there’s something inevitable about the way she’s ended up in the eye of the political storm yet again, don’t you think?”
• • •
When the car rumbled over the old bridge across the Volga, I was looking out for Pilnyak’s island. Pilnyak (né Wogau) was the popular “bourgeois” writer from Marx whom Stalin hounded to death for having hinted that the Great Leader ordered the elimination of his rival, Frunze. There the island was, stretched out below, its two long white sandy beaches looking like a pair of tights laid out to dry. A long time ago, Pilnyak tells us, a barge had sunk there. Over the years sand had built up around it, until finally it surfaced in that island.
It was an image that mattered to Pilnyak. He returns to it again and again, even in the atrocious Socialist Realist novel Stalin forced out of him in a final act of creative humiliation. What did it mean to him, I wondered? Was he protesting against the Soviet faith that you can refashion history, and human nature? Was he objecting that while the river flowed on, the sunken barge remained? It was a more ambiguous image than that, though. For the island kept changing shape.
This autumn, Putin had been launching an ambitious bid to do just that, to impose a new shape on Russian history. He had given his enthusiastic endorsement to a new standard history textbook for secondary schools. Western commentators construed it as an attempt to repeal the revelations of the glasnost years and return to the pre-Gorbachev version of Soviet history. So I tracked the book down in a Saratov bookshop when I arrived and spent a long time huddled on a stool, leafing through it.
It certainly contained a fulsome litany of Soviet achievements, imperial, economic, and technological. But it was not just a return to the old Soviet view. It was altogether more ambitious, a considered attempt to make the notion of “sovereign democracy” mean something.
Teachers were being offered ways of presenting Russia as having a special destiny, one which could not, should not, be measured by any Western yardstick. Yes, Russia’s Eurasianists had finally come in from the cold. Nineteenth-century Orthodox autocracy and Stalin’s imperial vision were finally reconciled in a single narrative whose underlying theme was Russian exceptionalism.
In the Soviet period there had indeed been bouts of repression and execution, the revisionist argument went. But the rationale for them needed to be understood. There had been famines, too, there was no denying it. But the numbers who died had been vastly exaggerated (one to two million perhaps, not the seven to ten million the detractors claimed). Stalin, “the most successful leader of the USSR,” had been acting entirely rationally. How else could an industrial state have been forged from a peasant society in such a short time? How else could the fascist enemy have been conquered? Yes, Stalin did deport whole ethnic groups, “in order to keep the monolithic character of the system.” But Russia emerged victorious. Russia’s greatness had been realized.
As we left behind the aching, bloodstained Volga countryside and dropped Nadya and her friend at school I was wondering what these bright twelve-year-olds were going to make of this rebranding of their country.
Tatiana dropped me off at the handsome Radishchev Museum. Framed by great plane trees, it stood on its own in the heart of the city. It had been closed for years, this fine, neoclassical building, one of the first purpose-built provincial museums in Russia. “For repairs,” they said. People wearily assumed it had been grabbed by some powerful organization. But when I arrived this time, I heard it had been reopened.
I spent the morning treading the magnificent wrought-iron staircase, marveling at the renovation, checking in with my favorite paintings. I had started coming here sixteen years ago, when Benya’s boat brought me to this old closed city. Inflation was taking off and the privileged workforce of those armaments factories were in a rage at their sudden impoverishment. This was where I would take refuge when I could no longer bear the hostility my foreign accent had provoked.
Now hard times were setting in again. Long before world markets started crashing, there were already fears of an impending catastrophe if Russia’s government did not use oil revenues to improve people’s lives. All over the world, the myth of the free market had gone to the heads of elites, but nowhere more than here. The price of oil was tumbling. Judging by the newspaper reports, xenophobia was on the rise: attacks on anyone non-Slav in appearance had been on the increase for some time. If the regime continued to stoke up anti-Western feeling a time might come when my accent again provoked hostility.
I was hunting for my favorite painting, by the remarkable Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Born in the Saratov countryside, son of a cobbler, he bicycled all the way from Leningrad to Paris, and from there to Italy to study the art of western Europe’s Middle Ages and Renaissance. Where was it? There it was, hanging high up in a corner. Two girls were getting dressed after bathing in the Volga. Their outstretched arms filled the canvas. The painting was a feast of lemon yellow, fuchsia, scarlet, and Giotto blue. Petrov-Vodkin had brought together the legacy of medieval Russian iconography with that of Europe’s Middle Ages and Renaissance. The composition was modern, yet ancient, an everyday image suffused with intimations of transcendence.
One of the girls looked like Tatiana when we first met, a clear-browed beauty with pale skin, pale hair, and wide gray eyes. Then, she was still a shy provincial girl, under the influence of the sophisticated Natasha. Now, she had taken her place in the army of Russia’s strong women, as the point of first and last resort for the old and the young, the single and the frail, the idealists and the honest. All of these stood far more frighteningly exposed in Russia than in the West. For them, family and friendship were the only safety nets.
When things fell apart, it would be Tatiana who absorbed the anger and fear, kept her judgments to herself and supported those around her, as Lyuba had done, as women down the centuries had done in this unyielding northern landscape.
Matushka moya, mother of them all. The clarity with which Tatiana understood all that went on around her was the burden she had to carry. After our banya, when we were sitting in the kitchen, she had talked, in her balanced way, about the Georgia war and the difficulties of living in this postideological age. “I don’t believe in anything they tell us in the mass media. I know it’s all propaganda.
“Twenty years ago it was different. We did all believe in communism—we accepted it, like the weather. You don’t demonstrate against the rain. But I remember as a child this feeling of shame, listening to those leaden speeches they used to make in the name of the Party. I knew it was false—children can tell these things. Not that I was especially sensitive. I’ve talked about this with other people of my generation—they all had the same feeling, a sort of inner chill.”
However much they pushed Putin’s new history textbook in the schools, I reflected, they were not going to be able to shape the minds of Tatiana’s children in the old Soviet way. Some of the gains of the last twenty years could not be undone. Russians would remain free to talk, to travel the world and use the Internet. A return to monolithic control over information was a technological impossibility.
FESTIVAL OF DEAD LEAVES
“Of course I despise my Fatherland from head to foot, but I mind when a foreigner shares my feelings.”
I woke up during the night, fretting about Anna. We were back at Tatiana’s flat in Saratov. But Anna had not asked me to stay. She had not come over. She had not even rung. I was accustomed to Anna’s strangeness. I had learned not take it personally. This was different, though. She had never avoided me before. That hurt.
When I first arrived on this trip, she had been there to greet me at Saratov station. Her lean, tanned face lit up by a lopsided smile, she dodged my embrace as usual. She returned with us to Tatiana’s flat, and stayed for a meal. It was long enough for me to register the change in her.
Anna had somehow grown into her skin, become womanly, attractive. There was a new animation about her. She had let her hair grow for the first time, and wore a striking plaid jacket and trousers. Strong colors suited her. I wondered fleetingly whether she was in love. She slipped away after the meal and I was longing to see more of her.
There had been times back in England when I was trying to write about Anna that I was so maddened by her elusiveness I almost fancied she didn’t exist, that she was merely the part of myself that I left behind in Russia when, with regret, with relief, I returned to the daylight world of the West. Now, when she was looking so vibrant, when she was only half a mile away, she had dropped out of sight.
Being with Anna had never been easy. Silences had been the other, the constant companion of our friendship. But since she had written me that wonderful letter after we met I had never doubted the connection between us; the fact, as she put it, that I was a-little-bit-her. Was that no longer true?
I remembered those early days, when we were both looking for answers to the same question: what does it mean to be Russian, now that communism has gone? We shared the same hopes for Russia, too. Her enthusiasm for the ideals of liberal democracy was untarnished. And I, her friend from the West, was the living representative of her hopes. Even then there were good reasons why she needed to retreat into silence, I reflected. Hers was a country with volatile politics and a venerable tradition of punishing people for their opinions. Before we ever met she had lost her job and her flat simply for having come out in support of Marx’s Russian German community.
Then there had been the time when a Moscow journalist picked up on her account of a hysterical attempt by Marx’s leaders to provoke rebellion against the region becoming a Russian German homeland. So crushed was the community by the mocking article he wrote in a popular paper that when I arrived in Marx shortly afterward, no one would talk to me. Anna had been the agent of their humiliation, albeit unwittingly. Muscovites were dangerous enough, foreigners far more so.
The reasons for Anna’s silences had changed over the years. Though I was often left struggling to grasp what lay behind them, I never doubted that she was challenging me to try to understand. After Putin came to power, after Russia’s relationship with the West became strained, there had been a tacit agreement between us that I would not expose her to unnecessary difficulties by asking her directly about politics.
Increasingly she had turned her energies inward and started exploring her spiritual world. But even then she wanted me to bear witness to her life. Or so I thought. Had I been kidding myself? The thought was unbearable.
Perhaps the problem was connected with the Orthodox Church? I had watched her wavering between the two branches of Christianity, Western and Eastern. I saw how she struggled to resist the comfortable lure of Catholicism. She battled to breach the outer defenses of Russia’s Church, the obscure language of its liturgy, the way it made no effort to help the uninitiated. That was a journey where I could follow her only so far. But she had clearly broken through long ago, found her way to something that nourished her. She had discovered a Russia she could love. I was even a little envious.
The problem, if there was one, was that the relationship between Church and State in Russia has always been so close. In its idealized form it amounted to a quasi-mystical “symphonia” between them. “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationhood,” ran the old tsarist rallying cry. When Putin embraced the notion of sovereign democracy, the regime was setting itself up as the legitimate inheritor of that autocratic tradition.
I noticed with alarm how other formerly liberal friends, now pious believers, had started investing Putin with the reverence traditionally accorded to the tsars. Had the burst of popular patriotism prompted by the war with Georgia affected Anna in the same way? Had she felt challenged to go the full stretch, to embrace the notion that if she loved her country, she must support the values and actions of its rulers?
The thought was so alarming that I was now wide awake. Outside in the street, a cat fight had started. I switched on the light. So that was it, was it? Anna had thrown in her lot with sovereign democracy. She could not cope with our friendship any more. All this time, I had never really been more than a function of her idea of the West. Or was it just that the distance between Russia and the West had grown too great? Either way, the connection between us had snapped.
The rubbish vans came and went, roaring hungrily, collecting refuse along the street. Dawn broke, and I got up early, waiting for the moment when Nadya would be at school and I could discuss my fears with Tatiana. She would tell me the truth. She knew Anna well.
Tatiana was unequivocal. “No, that’s all nonsense. Anna’s just being Anna,” she told me firmly. I felt a rush of relief. The night devils slunk away. What on earth had got into me? Then she added, in her emollient way: “You’re her conscience—and she can’t bear it.” That seemed highly improbable. Anna had more than enough conscience of her own. Tatiana was just trying to make me feel better.
After that, I insisted that Anna and I spend an evening together. Perhaps I should not have tried. For the occasion comically recapitulated our first, painful evening in Marx sixteen years earlier. There was I, longing to talk, to catch up on her, find out how she was. And there she was, deploying her words like well-placed guns, behind whose cover she kept contriving her retreat back into that hinterland of silences.
Topic after topic, she simply vetoed. “Don’t let’s talk about my work—I’m fed up with it. I’d love to leave, but there’s nowhere else to go. They’re not interested in serious, objective journalism anymore. It’s all become—well, very political.”
Anna dealt with the subject of the war with Georgia with equal dispatch, chopping it up like an awkward joint of meat. “How did people react to the war?” she growled. “They didn’t. Oh yeah? So they’re killing each other in the Caucasus again? My boots need mending.” Then she added bleakly: “Still, you get to the point where there’s nothing you can do but back your government. Living in a weak country’s no picnic. We tried that. It’s preferable to live in a strong one. Now let’s talk about something more cheerful.”
So we focused on the good news, her summer holiday exploring the glorious churches of the far north, the Moscow periodical Arion, which was publishing more of her poems.
Lucy, her beloved cat, who had survived falling seven stories from the window of her flat since my last visit, did her best to keep me entertained while Anna made a fuss about the fact that the hot water hadn’t been turned on as promised. She rang to tell the building manager off. Then she ran a very deep cold bath into which she dangled a small electric element, which might or might not warm the water up enough to give her a bath around midnight.
Meanwhile, I could hardly fail to notice that she had no furniture or carpets. Money had proved another taboo subject. Anna had been proud of her earnings. Now she was visibly struggling. Inflation was running a good deal higher than growth, and prices had shot up. The price of bread alone had risen by 22 percent since the beginning of the year. According to one survey, Russia’s middle class was shrinking, down from 25 percent of the population last year to 18 percent this year. Half Anna’s salary went in rent, her friends reckoned. Meanwhile, her parents, now old and infirm, needed her help to survive on their basic pension of $74 a month.
Anna had moved home since I was last here. She had just redecorated her old flat when the owners decided to sell it. This one was wretchedly dark and shabby and all but empty, except for a pile of periodicals thrown in a corner and a bookcase which the owners had left behind. Tatiana said she had refused all offers of furniture, in order to be prepared for further, involuntary moves. Anna slept on the floor now. Only her icon corner looked cared for. There, on a small chest covered with a freshly laundered cloth, lay her Bible and a few small paper icons.
Stilted though our evening was, I came away reassured that Anna had not lost her head and become a rabid nationalist. Nor was she trying to distance herself from me. She was just under greater pressure than I had ever seen her, struggling with the unexpected descent back into poverty, with having no home, hating her work, hedged around with constraints it would have been dangerous or demeaning to talk about.
Anna’s recent articles revealed more about her than she was prepared to admit to me directly. The brash tabloid for which she worked had always been a mine of interesting stories. It was tame now. Page after page of celebrity gossip was leavened here and there by patriotic articles. Russia’s popular press had morphed into its Western counterpart.
A Moscow friend was clear about her judgment of this development: “What we’ve got today is much more damaging than Soviet censorship was. It keeps people mindlessly occupied so they don’t have the time or inclination to think for themselves.” All this was true. Anna’s articles were different, though. There had been times after Putin came to power when her articles were bland, constrained by her anxiety to keep out of trouble. Not anymore. Now they were bold.
They offered a compelling glimpse of the dark malfunctioning of power in Saratov. Take the ongoing topic of the murder of the province’s harsh but honest chief prosecutor six months earlier. For a long time, the police got nowhere with their search for the culprit. Then the murder was pinned on the boss of one of the city’s most powerful factories, Hammer and Sickle. (I remembered it, of course. In the 1990s, the manager’s hair turned white overnight when the boss was beheaded for refusing to surrender his factory to a criminal gang.)
Anna did not bother to hide her skepticism at this turn of events. With one hand the prosecutor’s office was handing out awards to those responsible for the arrest, she noted coolly. With the other they were refusing the defendant his choice of lawyer. Back at his factory the disbelieving workforce were asking what possible motive their boss had for murder. Their view was that his arrest was the beginning of another hostile takeover attempt.
To add to the mystery, shortly before the murder an extremely personable swindler had been offering to “replace” the doomed prosecutor with a more amenable candidate, for a cool $1.5 million. The tape recording of the conversation played in court was collected by an aging police stooge with dark glasses and a puffy face who gave evidence in a tremulous voice. He died quite suddenly, mid-trial. Self-assured, amused, Anna exposed the holes in the evidence presented by this Gogolian cast of characters.
Reading these articles left me feeling chastened. How unimaginative I had been! No wonder Anna did not want to talk to me about her job. As her paper’s legal correspondent, each time she wrote an article she was picking her way through the minefield of a corrupted polity. The law served a state whose leaders had no higher vision than self-enrichment and the perpetuation of their rule. It was a terrifying job. But she, who had always seemed so fearful, was not just chronicling these cases. She was daring to make her own judgments clear.
Sometimes she even appeared to be enjoying herself. She had become a virtuoso at negotiating such moral complexities. And she could pull it off because all the lawyers, prosecutors, and politicians knew her to be incorruptible. I felt ashamed to have doubted her.
When Tatiana took me to Saratov station to catch the sleeper back to Moscow, Anna joined us, wearing a smart pink jacket (“secondhand,” she told me proudly). Ten years ago, you had to push through a swarm of hawkers, beggars, and displaced people with bundles to get to the platform. Now the place was spotless. This morning, the Indian summer spell had finally broken. The golden light which had touched Saratov with grace during the days of my visit had given way to drizzle. “You’re taking the sunshine with you,” said Tatiana with a rueful smile. Her face was whiter than ever today, and her eyes were dark holes. Anna, on the other hand, looked perversely vital, even amused as she shifted from foot to foot and hunched her shoulders against the rain.
Farther down the platform a school brass band was seeing somebody off, rum-pa-pa, rum-pa-pa. We stood there, pretending everything was normal, talking about future plans. There was a piece by Anna I was going to publish in the magazine I edited. I would meet up with Tatiana’s older daughter when I was in Moscow … The words were not the point, they were just a promise that whatever lay ahead, our friendship would hold fast.
We had shared a great grief in the years of our friendship. In the strangled silence between us lay our aborted hopes for a new Russia, one which would at last come to prize its own people, rather than hoisting itself up on their bones. All of us had bowed to the conventional wisdom that our hope for Russia at the end of communism was naive. But was it? Surely what was wrong was just that it was not stubborn enough. Hope is sacred, the fine point of the fulcrum of change.
What my friends were really feeling I hardly dared think, dare not even now. I was feeling cowardly, longing to be gone, to leave behind the plague of emotions bearing down on me. Guilt was the worst of them. I had never imagined leaving them to face such a difficult situation. Before we next met, relations between Russia and the West looked likely to get worse. Russia’s economy depended on selling oil and gas to Europe. The world recession, triggered in the West, was going to hit long-suffering Russians. And the harder it hit them, the more Moscow’s war party were likely to beat the nationalist drum and seek out confrontation with the West as a distraction. “We can’t afford to look ahead, any of us. It’s too awful,” Tatiana was saying over breakfast. “All we can do is live in a continual present, manage each day as it comes.”
This was the political backdrop against which my book was going to come out. My intimate account of the last sixteen years of their lives was going to appear in English, in the West. How would that play out for them, living here? There were times, much earlier on, when I believed that it might offer them protection. Not anymore. Ghosts from Russia’s Soviet past were giving me a hard time.
So how would my account affect them? The question was so delicate that I had not dared raise it. My friends had stayed clear of it, too. Now, as Anna evaded my embrace in her usual way, as I hugged Tatiana, the risks to which I was exposing them hit me like a truck.
I hurried onto the train and settled into my compartment without looking back, without waving. That Russian phrase about “leaving in the English way,” meaning without saying good-bye, came back to me. It had always seemed so funny, so un-English, and there I was doing it. Their unspoken question followed me in: could they trust me? These were the people who had taught me so much about friendship. Here in Russia, where everyday life was a battle against poverty, bureaucracy, or corruption, friendship was the true currency, the resource that made all possible. How would I turn out to have repaid that friendship with this book? Would it have repercussions on their lives? The questions were painful, and there were no answers.
My hope was that the positive lessons which my brave, independent-minded friends had drawn from the 1990s would not turn out to have been in vain. Whatever happens to my friends and to Russia, those lessons will always be there, in the compost heap of history which Anna Akhmatova evokes in her Poem Without a Hero:
As the future ripens in the past
So the past rots in the future—
A fearful festival of dead leaves