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Not Quite A Sentimental Journey

I arrived in Moscow late on a fall evening. In my mind's eye I can still see three faces that appeared to me in succession at Sheremyetevo International Airport. In the walkway from the door of the Lufthansa plane stood a tiotka, a dumpy, shabbily dressed lady of indeterminate age. In Russian, when "ka" is added to the word for "aunt," it denotes an entirely distinct social status, a specific stratum of society that even a doctoral dissertation could not describe. I had not met a single tiotka since my departure from Russia nine-and-a-half years before: the cheerless, indifferent face, the rumpled woolen scarf on the head, the squat, unevenly hemmed overcoat, the scuffed-up boots. So there you were, dear comrade woman, unchanged since the 1930s, and suddenly you seemed such an exotic creature. . . .

Behind the tiotka (what was she doing there, on the very edge of the land of the Soviets? was the walkway her place of employment?) stood a stone-faced border guard with the rank of major: my second Moscow face. The lighting was dim, though it was hard to believe that the airport was scrimping on such trivialities as electricity--better, surely, to flood everything with light to impress the foreigners. I was about to learn that the time of Potemkin villages is over for good.

We entered the building amid a crowd of European passengers. Along the wall stood more border guards, and officials in civilian garb. Among them, a third face struck me by its pallor. It belonged to a young man in his twenties. It looked as if his face were powdered; and in this static mask one could imagine a little bit of everything, from a tortured inferiority complex to a reckless pride. Well, I thought, how about that? A "man from the underground" may now be found working in customs. My first Muscovites: the unhappy Soviet tiotka, the man straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel, and between them the border guard, as neutral as the Urals.

We had left Moscow from this same airport one July morning in 1980. It had just been built for the Olympic Games, and everything shone brightly. The other passengers had already boarded the Air France jet, but we were still being inspected at customs. No fewer than eight officials--no "men from the underground" among them in those days--searched our pitiful luggage. The motherland's last duty was to prevent this malicious writer from taking any flammable objects with him. The officials confiscated a folder thick with notes, letters, and news clippings: "Taking out any archival materials is prohibited." "If I cannot leave with these archival materials, as you choose to call them, then I will not leave at all," I said. The officials fell silent. With a nod of his head, the chief inspector sent one of his assistants somewhere.

The folder sat there alone on the metal customs counter as if awaiting vivisection. The assistant finally returned and whispered something in his superior's ear. It became clear that someone from above had cleared the archival materials for passage, if only to get rid of the archivist as quickly as possible. Three months after this scene, my Soviet citizenship was revoked by a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, signed by Brezhnev, because of my "systematic damage to the prestige of the Soviet Union," and because of activities that "defamed the great title of citizen of the U.S.S.R." I thought I would never see my homeland again.

The decree revoking my citizenship has yet to be repealed, but nine-and-a-half years later this "ex-citizen" is returning to what the Stalinist poets used to call the capital of all hopes. (The invitation had come, however, from the American ambassador.) "Hello, Vassily Pavlovich! Welcome to Moscow!" The blinding lights of the TV cameras shine on me as young faces beam. Soviet television has begun filming me even before my arrival at passport control--that is, when I am still technically outside the Soviet Union. For the popular program "Look," it turns out, the "sacred border" is no longer sacred. A shouted question, the first: "Why did you come here by invitation of the American ambassador?"

Suddenly, a wiry KGB type rushes in with a walkie-talkie heavy enough to double as a blunt instrument. He pushes the lights aside and clamps his hand over the camera lens. "What's going on here? Who allowed you to film in this zone?" And so "zone" becomes one of the first words I hear in Moscow. It is one of the most common words in our language: "camp zone, " "forbidden zone," "restricted zone," "recreation zone," "friendship zone." Then something happens that is incredible to someone who had not been in the "U.S.S.R. zone" for nearly ten years.

What happens is that the TV people are neither discouraged nor frightened by the KGB man. They become, on the contrary, more excited and animated. "Shoot him!" the head cameraman shouts, pointing not at me but at the KGB officer. Looking back, the scene would seem a bit too tidily symbolic. But the symbolism is there. Two diametrically opposed social forces are in confrontation before me--those who want to tighten the zone and those who want to abolish it.

Five minutes later the higher authorities arrive. They say, "Vassily Pavlovich, my dear fellow, do forgive us, our colleague here overdid it." The interview begins again, and that same night everything--including the shouts. "Go into the zone, into the zone!"--is shown on the program that keeps half the population of the Soviet Union glued to the TV screen until two in the morning. "So why did you, a Russian writer, return to your homeland at the invitation of the American ambassador?" "First, because we and the Matlocks are neighbors in Georgetown. Second, because nobody else had invited me to my homeland."

Step by step we come closer to the border control. Behind it I see a thick wall of people awaiting the arriving passengers. Familiar faces already stand out. Finally we are there among them, passing from hand to hand, or rather in every hand at once; we are hugged, kissed, and patted by everyone who can reach us, and we hug, kiss, and pat everyone near us, even the journalists. But we no longer know who is who, journalists or friends.

The friends are old; the journalists are young. So I adopt a strategy of kissing the old ones and avoiding kissing the young ones, so as to limit my kissing to friends. But a couple of the young women reproach me: "Vasya, Vasya, don't you recognize me?" Then I recognize them: they are "beauties of days gone by," but they have had their faces lifted. Finally, I manage to reach my son and sister. The TV lights again beam on. Several crews are filming at once. Microphones and tape recorders are thrust forward over people's heads. Living in the West, I had forgotten that I am a superstar.

At last we step outside into the "vastness of our wonderful homeland." The snow is whirling about, a real blizzard. "Before yesterday, we had lovely European weather," someone says. But in honor of my arrival, apparentlv, Russia has decided to provide something more typical of her. Fora moment, amid the bustle, it is just she and I. "Hello, " I say to her. "Alone at last. Thank you for the lovely snowstorm."

I had been almost a decade in exile, and I was beginning to realize that for me, in my exile, Russia had been transformed into literature about Russia--which should not be confused with Russian literature. The latter had also changed for me; it had taken on weight, "significance," had begun to be transformed into "texts." Ten years ago, when I was just another freelance fiction writer hawking my wares from magazine to magazine, I didn't worry about "significance" or "texts." What had happened to me while I was away from Russia was this: my country--the vital land "where I loved and suffered," the "unwashed Russia," the "wife-motherland" (in the phrase of the poet Aleksander Blok), the "bitch-motherland" (as the novelist Andrei Sinyavsky called it)--had been transformed for me into merely a source of information. (A substantial source, to be sure.) "Wait a minute," I said to myself, "Am I a Russian? Or just an old Russia hand?" I wondered whether I would be able to revive my feeling of vital connection to this country; and I understood that the underlying purpose of my ten-day trip was to find the answer to that question.

The next morning I wake up in the U.S. Embassy's luxurious Spaso House (built not long before the Revolution as a private residence, for a millionaire patron of the arts), breakfast with the hospitable Matlocks, and set out with my wife into the city. The Garden Ring, the broad road that circles central Moscow, has hardly changed. Empty trucks still rattle along on both sides of the street. But the air--alas!--is now worse than Los Angeles's. The billboards bearing political slogans have disappeared. Next to the Soviet Army's Political Academy, a poster for a small video club advertises films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, an idol of Soviet youth.

We had heard plenty of stories about Moscow from emigre friends who had returned here before us. The general impression they conveyed was one of grayness, decay, decline, gloom. The odd thing was that the people who reported this would return from Moscow in an exhilarated state.

Moscow, of course, has never been known for its cheery atmosphere, although there was a time when we made a real carnival out of it. Now it did indeed seem gloomier. The buildings weren't exactly shimmering with newness. No architectural masterpieces had gone up on the Garden Ring; it looked as if nothing new had been built at all. For some reason, the doorways drew our attention. Once imposing, they were worn and peeling, with ugly, ill-fitting, utilitarian doorknobs that would have looked normal on a warehouse. Had there been a dramatic deterioration in the state of Moscow doorways? Or was I only now noticing their sad state because I had come back through the luxurious doorways of the West?

We come across several food stores and one shoe store that had been there before. I remember them well. The variety of their merchandise had already begun to decline by the late 1960s, though in the late 1970s, in the dairy store on the comer of the Garden Ring and Kalinin Prospekt, one could still find several types of butter, cheese, and yogurt. Now only a small fraction of this range remains. "What do you want?" a saleslady demands, sitting idly behind one of the empty counters. "Oh, nothing...We're just looking," we stutter. "Then why did you come in?" she asks. "Do you think this is a museum?" We hurry out of the store, ashamed. "You see," I say to my wife, "she knows we're outsiders. She knows we're just observing." Then we go into the fruit and vegetable store. It isn't quite so empty, but the bananas are green, the grapefruits tiny and shriveled. The candy stores are especially depressing. When we lived here there was always a generous spread of candies, cookies, sweetcakes, and chocolates. Now there languishes on the empty shelves only a single type of cheap fruit drops.

Shoes are an issue worth noting. Seeing Soviet shoes always reminds me of my Hungarian medical school classmate, Sigmund Toth. In the spring of 1956 we were walking along Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad, when suddenly Toth stopped in front of a shoe store window. "You know," he said, "if they put shoes like that out in the stores in Budapest, we'd have a revolution." Evidently such shoes went on sale that fall.

The shoe remains a useful index of political conditions. Despite my determination to notice the good things in Moscow, I am forced to conclude that Soviet shoe production has not improved. In fact it has deteriorated: now there's very little leather and lots more horrible Soviet vinyl. There's not another country in the world, not in Africa or Asia, that would produce such shoes. It makes no sense to do so: people don't buy them. Yet millions of Moscow feet are handsomely shod. Where these good shoes come from, since they're not sold in the stores, is one of Moscow's little secrets.

In all the bleakness of the remains of Soviet civilization, I do not notice, despite the tales of my emigre friends, despondency and depression. The faces have become markedly brighter. As a general rule, the degree of infamy of the apparatus of a regime is reflected in the gloominess of the faces of the population, especially in an ideological country where the ruling apparatus is a mass of millions. At the risk of taking things at their face value, so to speak, it seems to me I see less totalitarianism reflected in the faces of Muscovites.

Indeed, the city is bursting with energy and vitality. But it isn't clear what kind of energy it is. People walk at a quick pace: hurrying, charging ahead, pouring forth. You end up running around the huge megalopolis against your will, trying to keep up with the guerrilla strategies of the black marketeers. On the Arbat, some Romanians are peddling winter boots at a furious pace. One person runs up, grabs a pair, and marches off happily. Another shouts, "I've been taken! These boots are two different colors!" Every day in Moscow means going out to hunt for something, for anything, and then waiting for hours in maddening lines, endless lines, lines where the grapes of wrath ripen. They ripen slowly, in the Russian style, but they do ripen.

Pushkin Square is full of soapbox speakers and newspaper hawkers from various political sects. It's worth the trip just to see it. Right there in the center of Moscow, people are discussing all kinds of problems out loud, and not a policeman in sight. A load of blather, a couple of lousy arguments, the familiar sarcastic laugh of the Moscow street philosopher who before dared talk so openly only about soccer but now talks about the corruption of the ruling circles ("Those mafia bastards! They'll never give up a thing!"), and about corrupt commercial ties with the West ("They come here for our broads and our mafia goes there for then computers!"), and again about corruption. Always about corruption.

There are plenty of tiotkas in Pushkin Square, with Yeltsin buttons pinned to their coats. There are Georgians and Armenians telling horror stories about the Caucasus. Muscovite supporters of democracy in the Baltic republics are distributing a newspaper. A young boy goes by peddling the newspaper of the revived pre-revolutionary Cadets, and a young girl brandishes an anarchist sheet. A group of punkers stands near the traffic underpass, as ridiculous as their peers in London. To an old-fashioned Soviet like me, it all looks like some ancient Stalin-era B-movie about bourgeois cacophony.

These political activities (except for those of the neo-Nazis and the Pamyat extremists) do not alarm Muscovites. People don't even talk about them much; and if they do, it's with a certain pride: finally, little by little, we're rocking the boat. There's much more talk about crime, organized and unorganized, and about the filtering of arms from the army to the masses. The evening news shows anti-tank grenades that were discovered in the trunk of a car. This on TV, where before you could see only pictures of the glorious collective farm workers' achievements and the Red Banner awards won by enterprises and regions. Our taxi driver shows us the burned hulk of a large restaurant. "Three days ago," he says enthusiastically, "some guys drove by on motorcycles and tossed Molotov cocktails at the place! And see that twenty-four-hour food store? Yesterday they evacuated everyone because of a bomb threat. Moscow," he concludes with gusto, "is under the thumb of the racketeers!" People recount crimes with a certain pride: in this we're the same as anywhere else, we've caught up with the West. In Kazan, my hometown, which has become notorious for its gangs of young thugs, they say: "It's just like Los Angeles here"--though that, alas, is where the similarity ends.

The magazine Youth, where our meanderings were finally leading us, was founded in 1955 by Valentin Kataev. Kataev, though a conformist, was always a marvelous writer. It is fair to say that the literary life of my generation began in this magazine. Now Youth, with a press run of three-and-a-half million, was about to serialize my novel The Island of Crimea, twelve years after I wrote it and nearly thirty years after my debut. Less than ten years ago, under Brezhnev, you could get a prison sentence merely for reading that book; two years ago its author was condemned in the Soviet press--supposedly from the mouths of 'workers," in the traditional manner--as a traitor to the motherland and an agent of imperialism; and less than a year ago it was still on the list of books that absolutely could not he brought into the country. Now we open the door to the magazine's office (it has the usual crummy doorknob). "Come on, Nasya!" someone shouts. "Don't you know we're on deadline? Hurry up and go over your galleys!" Magzine offices are always the same.

A dav later I speak on "The Russian Writer in America" at Spaso Mouse. Diplomatically, Matlock has sent out invitations to both "Westernizers" and "Russophiles." About 250 people come, among them many tribunes of perestroika, the leaders of the liberals. Not one ol the "Russophiles" shows up. One of them, the novelist Vassilv Belov, had already publicly dissociated himself from the "Spaso House Event" and reproached the American ambassador. Instead of inviting a pathetic foul-mouthed emigre scribbler to stay with him, Belov had made clear, the representative of a great power should have invited a truly Russian writer with an unblemished reputation. Someone like himself, perhaps. But one suspects that a recipient of the State Award for Literature, a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, and a member of the Vologda Regional Communist Party Committee and the Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. Writers Union might be able to find a place to sleep without the help of the American ambassador.

Belov issued his public condemnation of me at a meeting of like-minded representatives of the "village prose" school, writers of peasant tales who claim to be the authentic voice of the authentic Russia. At this meeting, speakers call for the expulsion of Jews from Russian culture, and identify the half-Jews among us. They go further: Who has wives, they ask, that are Jewish or half-Jewish? Those, it appears, are the most dangerous. Even a Moscow accustomed to anti-Semitic statements is taken aback by this particular gathering. Is this what our Russian writers are like?

If I were asked what I consider the most loathsome aspect of contemporary Soviet life, I'd reply without hesitation: the Nazism and the anti-Semitism of these writers. Even one Vasiliev, the leader of Pamyat, looks respectable next to these frenzied "village prose " writers. Unlike Vasiliev, the writer-Nazis are nearly all members of the Communist Party. In the worst years of the Brezhnev "era of stagnation" they were treated exceptionally well. When dissidents were arrested and undesired people shoved out of the country against their will, the "village prose" writers won government prizes and sat on presidiums. They unhesitatingly toed the Partv line, occasionally diverging slightly, and mischievously, on the subject of Jews--sometimes saying out loud what the Party only meant. Now, when Jewish heads are counted at writers' meetings, euphemisms are no longer needed: squeeze 'em, crush 'em, we're in charge here! Now it's the word "Jew" that is becoming a euphemism, denoting everyone they hate: liberals, Westerners, modernists.

Meanwhile Vasiliev sits beneath a portrait of the last czar and reflects upon the future of Russia. He is a spokesman for monarchism. He doesn't like the Western pattern of development. Russia has its own destiny; it is God's elect. "You are in favor of what? A limited monarchy?" the host of "Look" asks him. "Why limited?" he staunchly responds. "We are for an absolute monarchy." And he continues: "We have no ill feelings toward the Jewish people. We'll let them go and wave goodbye. You don't scare us with the word Nazism. People are always saying, 'Nazism, Nazism,' but for some reason they forget about the second component of that concept--socialism, national socialism."

The Great Hall of the Architecture Club. The site of my last public reading before I left ten years ago. The room seems not to have changed at all. I see the same lovely faces of my readers. The only difference is that there are more young people. They greet me as their writer. Despite myself, I get a little teary. I'm having a hard time maintaining my image as an unsentimental man on a sentimental journey. The past doesn't present itself as a peaceful series of idyllic pictures; it boils up, it whirls about, it bursts through stones, it breaks open flood gates.

In the Oleg Tabakov Theater a young troupe performs Surplus Barrelware, adapted from a tale I wrote in 1968. The actors were between three and seven years old when the tale was first published, to public raves and Party fury. On stage a huge sack symbolizes the barrelware; all the action takes place on its saggy burlap surface. When the author, now a fifty-seven-year-old professor at George Mason University, is applauded onto the stage, he is overcome with euphoria. He dives onto the sack in subconscious imitation of a Washington Redskins play. The actors pick the professor up and toss him into the air, again and again. Where am I? I'm flying, I'm flying!

In the Sovremenik Theater a play based on my mother Evgenia Ginzburg's book Journey into the Whirlwind opened last spring. It's still playing to sold-out houses. Forty actresses play women prisoners in the NKVD's political prisons in 1937. Twelve men play the investigators and transit guards. Marina Neelova, who looks much as my mother did in her youth, cries out during the interrogation, "Where are my children?!" Throughout the play an elderly lady--she was my mother's actual cellmate--wanders among the professional actresses. She's in almost every scene, though she doesn't say a word. My own son, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, sits next to me. The audience knows I'm in the theater. When Galina Volchek, the artistic director, calls me up onto the stage, I can think of no better gesture than a V-for-Victory. It is a victory for those who, in the 1960s, secretly distributed my mother's book, retyping it in thousands of copies on onion-skin paper. It is a victory for my mother, whose grave in Moscow is always adorned with flowers. This journey is becoming a little more than sentimental.

The provincial city of
Kazan. It lies on the left bank of the Volga River. It's only about 500 kilometers east of Moscow, but for me it has become the remotest place in the world. I go there to see my aged father, but also to see the sources of my own life, the orphaned childhood of a scion of "enemies of the people," the squalor of my past. All this was as distant to me now as America was to me in my 1950s adolescence.

My father, Pavel Vasilevich Aksyonov, was chairman of the City Soviet here until 1937. He then spent eighteen years in Stalin's camps. When he returned, he received from Khrushchev an apartment, a pension, and an Order of Lenin. Today, at ninety-one, he is one of the oldest members of the Bolshevik Party.

Before I left the country, my father, then in his early eighties, was very active. He read newspapers, listened to foreign radio, argued forcefully during political discussions. Now his hearing and his vision have deteriorated. "I am very old," he says. "Forgive me, my memory sometimes fails me." It touches me that now he evaluates the leaders of the Soviet Union not through "class analysis" but through universal human values. "Lenin was a good man. Stalin was very bad. Brezhnev was good for nothing. Gorbachev--he's OK." The American down overcoat we brought thrills him. "How old are you now, my son?" he asks me. "As usual, father," I answer. He smiles. "Me, I'm a bit older than usual."

In Kazan, as in Moscow, journalists stick to me like glue. Two groups of reporters have come with us from Moscow. A third group, from Kazan, boards the train at a whistle-stop an hour before we get there. The cameras start rolling the minute we hit the Kazan station platform, and they don't let up till we leave.

Even in the 1920s, that is, in the mildest period of Soviet power during the New Economic Policy, the press couldn't print a tenth of what it prints now. The liberation of the media is far and away the most striking and wonderful sign of change. Of course, you still notice some old-style evasions and euphemisms. And Soviet journalists still write too often in the same old cliches, only now they deploy their leaden prose to criticize the status quo rather than to glorify it. Of course, the press is still supervised, but now the supervisors rebuke reporters whose stories read as if someone were supervising them. Soviet radio reports on the clash between students and militia in Prague with sympathy for the students. I encounter almost nothing of the old ways. I give many interviews, and almost all are published without distortion. On a television program about the Soviet armed forces, where drums once rolled and "The Invincible and Legendary," the official army hymn, once thundered, a group of officers discusses military matters. "The army is a part of society, isn't it?" one says. Another continues, "Our society is ill, and so the army is ill, too."

The TV people in Kazan take me to the local KGB headquarters, a building known as the Black Lake. For seventy years it signified terror to the population. The cameras begin to roll. Suddenly a militiaman approaches. "What are you filming here?" The old question. "It's none of your business," the crew members reply. The new answer. I stroll the length of the Black Lake, describing how my parents disappeared here in 1937, how I myself as a four-year-old met my father here. "Look more tragic!" the TV people shout at me.

This large provincial city, full of history and nearly devoid of gastronomy, shows no sign of apathy and inertia, despite its impoverished state. Its notorious "youth gangs," groups of young men in sweatpants and aviator jackets, are busy with their own affairs and don't bother the peacefully strolling crowds. The only line we see in the center of the city is for books: Jules Verne is for sale. There's no point lining up for anything else; the clothing in the stores is wretched, and for a long time food has only been available for ration coupons. But the words of Verne are just as good as the day he wrote them--and available without coupons. The local theater is rehearsing Journey into the Whirlwind. The people I studied with are now teaching in the same institutes where we were students. The Peter-Paul Cathedral, a planetarium ever since the Soviets took power, has been returned to the believers. The Tatar intelligentsia celebrates the millennium of Islam. The colonnades of the university, from which the young Lenin was once expelled, still gleam magically in the evening dusk. Through the architectural chaos you can still make out the roof of the high school where the great poet Velimir Khlebnikov once studied.

Two days later, still accompanied by our friends from television, we begin our return trip West from Kazan, destination Georgetown. An energetic middle-aged man comes into our car in the train. Briefcase in hand, he looks like the tough boss in a Socialist Realist film. "Everything's OK, fellows!" He winks. "I've got everything!" And what, exactly, is everything? He opens the briefcase: three bottles of cognac and a roasted chicken. Now, this is a matter for nostalgia: friendly company in a Soviet train car. Our new friend, it turns out, really is a big boss. He'd gone from Moscow to Kazan to deliver a red banner to a factory that won a competition. "Imagine," he winks again, "there I am, standing on stage like an idiot with this banner. Ah, Vasya Aksyonov, Vasya Aksyonov, we knew your stuff by heart at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute." And a few moments later, "You don't remember me?" He shifts his shoulders in a boxer's stance. "Moscow middleweight champion!"

"Tell us, Grisha," we ask him, "has communism got any kind of chance left?"

"Not a one," he answers firmly. "Let's have a drink!"

Ten years ago communism still seemed unshakable to us, and meanwhile its time was already drawing to a close. We liked to tell each other that Brezhnevism was the dinosaur's last phase before extinction. But we didn't believe it. Now the dinosaur is collapsing in front of us. Strangely, I feel neither triumph nor gloating. I merely wish to know this: Is there, behind all the tragicomic turns of our Russian tale--all the revolutions, counterrevolutions, Stalinisms, neo-Stalinisms, revisionisms, thaws, freezes, perestroikas, glasnosts--is there, behind all this, some enchanted playwright, some divine author who knows how the story ends?

--Translated by Moira Ratchford and Josephine Woll

Vassily Aksyonov is the author of The Island of Crimea, The Bum, In Search of Melancholy Baby, and Say Cheese, all published by Random House.

By Vassily Aksyonov