My love for Russian literature is over four decades old. I wrote my undergrad thesis on a (then) contemporary Soviet novelist, Vasily Aksyonov, who had been stripped of his citizenship and emigrated to the States. Whatever the time period, and the social and political context of the books I read during college—from Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We, to Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, to Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov—it was the soul of its geographically isolated, long-oppressed people that I was seeking (and related to) in these works. Through czarist times and Sovietization, that soul was unchanged.
In retrospect, I was remarkably unconflicted about the fact that, as I studied, the Cold War was in full force, Soviet ICBMs were aimed at us, and our two countries’ fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) provided the sole hedge against annihilation. My passion was Russian language and literature, and I strove to comprehend the history and culture behind our sworn enemy. That meant to connect with its writers, past and present, as a conduit to what I believed were essential truths.
During the 1980s, I traveled widely throughout the country, always toting books by Gogol or Chekhov, which were still difficult to find in the USSR. Despite the miserable deprivation the citizens of this nuclear superpower experienced, they were deeply connected to their literary history. Citizens of the Soviet Union loved their writers, and I did, too.
But how do I reconcile a lifelong passion for Russian literature with the Russia of Vladimir Putin? How much should I hold these same Russian people accountable for the escalating atrocities in Ukraine? These people who, for centuries, have endured under the absolute power of their rulers. Today, it is estimated that 68 per cent of Russians support war in Ukraine. There are infuriating explanations for it—the fragility of Russian identity, nostalgia for empire, antipathy towards the west and its values, pan-Slavicism, not to mention systemic disinformation. And yet it simply beggars belief, how a nation that has suffered so much can impassively watch the spectacle of death and destruction next door in Ukraine.
In 1987, I interviewed Joseph Brodsky; we discussed the glasnost era rehabilitation of writers that had been banned (as he had been) by Stalin, Khrushchev, and all systems of Soviet artistic repression. Writers like Vasily Grossman, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich, and Marina Tsvetaeva—whom Brodsky called “the most important writer for Russians,”—precisely because she offered no consolation to the Russian nation. These writers bravely wrote the truth, more accurately than historians. Russia has a vast and rich tradition of dissent. I have no doubt that it continues today, dangerously within the country, and in relative safety from abroad. My great hope is that a generation of courageous writers will reveal that there is, in fact, more humanity than barbarity in Putin’s Russia.
The concierge told me it was the hottest June day in Moscow on record. A cloud of downy poplar seeds thickened the air in front of the National Hotel. The Russians call it “summer snow,” and in the heat, the white fluff stuck to my neck, shoulders, and legs as I drifted through the streets of the city I once had known well but now barely recognized.
I felt disconnected, rudderless, and emotionally blank, as though I’d arrived in a place that I could only identify because I had seen images of it whoosh by a couple of times on film.
It was a homecoming of sorts. Twenty-eight years had passed since I first traveled to the then-Soviet Union. I arrived there in June of 1982 with a shiny-new degree in Russian Studies. I was a wide-eyed Cold War baby who had spent four years in college reading deeply into the tortured Russian soul. It had been an obsession since tenth grade, when I won a school essay contest. I have no memory of the topic, but I do recall the prize: a collection of novellas by Dostoevsky. The stories validated a certain bleak corner of my heart while welcoming and giving relevance to the sensitive wallow. I began to study Russian on weekends and in the summer. No doubt it was my enthusiasm for the minutiae of its complex grammar, rather than my otherwise okay high school academic record or vice-directorship of the blood drive, that gained me acceptance to Princeton in 1978.
Stalin had been dead for only twenty-five years. The Iron Curtain was the central geopolitical divide at the time, and the United States needed Russian speakers to interfere with the ideology of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Lenin’s enduring anti-capitalist legacy. The admissions committee might have seen a potential heir to Ambassador George Kennan, the father of modern Kremlinology, who, since resigning from the State Department, had continued to formulate policy toward the Soviet Union at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study.
But it was the books I loved—their modern, relatable sheen. There was nothing nineteenth century about Chekhovian self-awareness; Anton Pavlovich might as well have been writing about the people in my life. Women like Ariadne, who “woke up in the morning with one purpose: to make an impression.” Or Gromov in Ward 6, who says, “There are times when I am seized with a thirst for life—and it’s then that I’m afraid of going mad.” Chekhov wrote about me, articulating my absurd conundrum of privilege and discontent, but transported to promenades in the south of France, a steamer on the Black Sea, or provincial estates lined with avenues of fir and linden. The word “depression” was not part of the vernacular at the time, but the chronic and heavy sensation of longing I carried with me had a perfect and otherwise untranslatable Russian word: toska.
I spent my college years in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, a daylight-free warren of rooms occupying the basement of a building in the center of campus. The classes were crowded, but only four of us that year had declared Russian as our major. I took courses in politics and history to examine the centuries-old ties between the rulers—Czars, Bolsheviks, the Politburo, or whoever held the reins at the time—and the writers, who belonged to the people. I devoted myself to the literature, to Chekhov’s stifling parlors and Gogol’s lunatics wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, but also several contemporary authors and poets, some of whom were in exile, and some of whom, through compromise, cleverness, or both, survived the system as Soviet writers.
After graduation, I turned down the chance to translate interoffice memos for our country’s security agencies to work for tips as a tour guide for professional-exchange programs. I crisscrossed the Soviet Union, starting in Moscow, winding through the Caucasus or Central Asia, and finishing up in Leningrad. Two years later, I began a career in network television, and as I climbed the ladder, I traveled frequently to the USSR. Three times, I fell in love on assignment during Moscow winters, always finding some magic of chemistry, or coincidence, in that barren place. In 1992, I spent two months researching weapons facilities. I had recently married and would soon move back to the States, have a son, and then a daughter, and duty and domesticity would curtail my travels almost to extinction.
But my forays to Russia continued, at least for a while, through its literature. I loved to re-visit my college volumes—Lermontov, Gorky, Tsvetaeva, Aksyonov, Ahkmatova, and especially Chekhov—and skim my margin notes, scribbled at a time when there was nothing on earth more important than the book in my hand.
At 49, in the throes of unhealthy midlife nostalgia, I became preoccupied with the notion that the unrelenting passage of years had extinguished most of the passions that had fueled my younger self. I had begun to work, write, and travel again, but at the same time, my old obsessions began to surface. I started to miss, then crave, and then positively require the connection to Russia that had once defined me. A classic mid-life epiphany, to be sure, in which I felt a desire to stitch the known past together with the unknown future, and to soothe myself with the knowledge that I might yet be the same person after nearly three decades. My whole life was ahead of me back when I first went to the Soviet Union, and in a way, with two nearly-grown kids, it was now as well.
So, on Memorial Day, I left my family in the middle of a summer barbecue to catch a plane to Moscow, to replicate that first post-college journey. I wanted to know whether landing on Russian soil would feel like home again.
It hadn’t begun well. I’d spent two full days—one of them in a torrential rainstorm—standing outside the Russian consulate in New York applying for a visa, with a restless throng of other document-waving hopefuls. I made the mistake of not hiring an outside procurement service, and I spent hours on the sidewalk chastising myself for that fateful decision. Eventually, the document came through, but I already felt done-in by the great Russian obstacle machine.
Round two greeted me upon landing in Moscow. Passport control was interminable; it gave me severe Brezhnev-era flashbacks. I couldn’t find an open bank to get rubles, so I used my credit card to pay for a train ride to Belorussky Station, where I discovered that I’d left my fluent Russian somewhere in 1992. It was pretty much gone, especially the part that might have helped me negotiate with a swarm of drivers, all clad in leather jackets, who lurked curbside ready to shake down the next sucker—in this case, me. There were no official taxis. What had I ever liked about this goddamn place? I fumed as I doled out fifty US bucks to a man who ferried me to the National, right on Manezh Square.
From the outside, it was as magnificent as I’d remembered, but the inside was infinitely grander. Back then, it was run by the state but, because of its fine bones and classical architecture, was slightly more upscale than the bland places Intourist usually put up visitors. Even so, it was stuck with the same standard-issue furnishings, same dim lights, and same sour smell I would get to know intimately at hotels throughout the USSR.
Now, it was a paragon of five-star luxury, and my room was decorated with crimson brocades and dainty settees, and it was equipped with a full mini-bar from which I procured a double vodka, straight up. From room service, I ordered a thousand rubles’ worth of plump little strawberries to round out my cocktail hour. Thirty-four US dollars for seven berries.
I walked and walked, looking for a bakery where I might find something tasty and cheap. I found one on Varvarka Street, beside the Znamensky Monastery. For pennies, I snacked on pirozhki, one filled with apples, one with potatoes, and one with cheese. The elderly woman who served me was a relic from Khrushchev’s time, wearing a boxy blue baker’s coat and chef’s cap atop her teased hair. Later, I bought a sack of tiny ripe strawberries at a kiosk, this time for the sum of ten rubles—roughly forty cents. They dissolved rapidly in my mouth, and tasted of candy and sunshine.
After my first full day in Moscow, I ate osso bucco and gnocchi alla Romagna in a palatial, new Italian restaurant adorned with frescoes and bas-reliefs of Roman gods. The dinner was courtesy of an old friend whom I met in Moscow years ago, and who happened to be passing through. He escorted me past a trio of thugs bursting out of their suit jackets—security for an oligarch’s lavish birthday party upstairs. I marveled at the dinner, as I recalled the scarcity of everything—meat, milk, even cucumbers—back in the eighties, even in hotels for westerners, and how I lived on small cakes, black bread, and the rare steaming bowl of Beef Stroganoff. The city had changed, had become full of glitzy boutiques and women with tan legs and towering heels—the Miami Beach of the Steppes. In the Soviet era, even young women plodded through Moscow’s grim streets with their backs hunched over; now it seemed they all stood eight feet tall, their shoulders back and breasts pushed forward.
I was a stranger, in spite of the years I spent working here, the love affairs, and the great trove of Russian books that had inspired and sustained me.
On the third morning, I went to Red Square to see Lenin in his tomb. It had once been among the safest places on earth, patrolled by army troops and teeming with police. When I was in my twenties and had insomnia, which happened often to me when I was in Moscow, I would stroll alongside the Kremlin’s crenellated walls at 3 am, admiring the cupolas of St. Basil’s that maintained their frenzied brilliance even in darkness. Uniformed men were stationed at broad intervals, and I nodded greetings to them as I tried to walk off the blini, caviar, and vodka from dinner. At nighttime in those days, Red Square was well lit but totally deserted, and I recall that the strength in my limbs felt buttressed by this very emptiness, as if its palpable historical significance was mine alone to feel.
Now, nothing remained of the moody atmospherics from the Soviet era. Parts of the square felt like a seedy theme park, with kiosks selling balloons and overpriced lemonade. It never seemed possible that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the tiny gray figure in the depressing permafrost, whom one network correspondent I knew referred to as Dead Fred the Head Red, had overthrown the monarchy and set his nation on its roughly 70-year course. But in 2010, that history seemed ludicrous.
My Russian was slowly coming back, and I experienced glimmers of recognition, flashes of the familiar, as faded postcards of 1980s Moscow came into view—the woman at the bakery, for instance. But I still felt disconnected, rudderless, and emotionally blank, as though I’d arrived in a place that I could only identify because I had seen images of it whoosh by a couple of times on film. It didn’t feel like mine anymore. I was a stranger, in spite of the years I spent working here, the love affairs, and the great trove of Russian books that had inspired and sustained me, and to which I returned again and again and again.
That afternoon, a taxi driver named Pavel took me to the Novodevichy Cemetery to visit Anton Chekhov, the only dead man I have a crush on. He knows my mind as if he were inside it, and he grasps the confounding equation of marriage more than any writer living or dead. I murmured small devotions to him, thanking him for his clairvoyance and bits of wisdom uttered through characters like Samoilenko in The Duel: “The principal thing in marriage is patience. Not love, but patience.” Standing in front of the headstone, I hesitated before plucking two sprigs of jasmine blossoms from an overhanging tree. I tossed one flower on the soil above Chekhov’s body and stuck the other between two pages of a notebook in my bag.
The sky darkened and without warning split wide open—thunder, lightning, a curtain of rain that in an instant washed the poplar seeds clean off my shoulders. I took shelter against a low building, beside gravedigger tools. After about a half hour, the sky turned a blinding blue. The storm had passed, leaving puddles of water that I waded through in flip-flops.
As I walked toward the exit, I saw a crowd of people gathering in the main courtyard, along with eight or so television cameras. A man wearing an officer’s cap and gloves stood in front of an oversized, red funeral arrangement. He held a framed black-and-white photograph of a man I recognized as the poet Andrei Voznesensky, who had died earlier in the week, and upon whose burial procession I had apparently stumbled.
Voznesensky was one of the great and most controversial poets of the Soviet era. He was introduced to me by my college professors, who had the wisdom to convey that a literary tradition perseveres even—especially—when a writer is at risk, which they so often were throughout the histories of the Russian and Soviet Empires. With the exception of a nasty run-in with Khruschev, Voznesensky managed to preserve his humanity and his voice and not run afoul of the Soviet literary watchdogs. Many, especially dissidents who had to leave the USSR, despised him as a sellout. In the 1960s, he gave readings in stadiums packed with fellow citizens, who needed poetry like we in the West needed the Rolling Stones.
As the crowd of mourners swelled to the hundreds, a hush began to take hold. I fell in line, and we marched down the cemetery’s tree-lined alleys, past silhouettes and gravestones and little manicured patches of grass. It was a long shuffle to the burial site, in and out of shadows. The resting place was clearly delineated, exploding with a thousand bouquets draped with ribbons. The crowd, still silent, watched as the poet was lowered into the ground, taking his place alongside Gogol, Mayakovsky, Bulgakov, and of course, Chekhov.
After the service, I found Pavel, my driver, at the appointed meeting place outside the cemetery gates. As I slipped into the passenger seat of the car, I asked him, “Who were all the mourners?” “Just Russians,” he said. “We love our writers.” And then he said, with a low flourish as if he were alone on stage, “Life like a rocket flies/Mainly in darkness, Now and then on a rainbow.”
Sunlight poured through the passenger window and onto my lap. Moscow sparkled from the thunderstorm, and Pavel drove through pools of rainwater.
“The Parabolic Ballad,” Pavel said. I had read it in college.
Back at the hotel, I cracked open another $20 vodka and looked up the verse. Outside, the cupolas of the Kremlin were shining as they have for hundreds of years on June evenings like this one. Finally, it all made sense.
During that first trip to the USSR in 1982, a bus driver in Leningrad recited to me the entirety of The Bronze Horseman. Aleksandr Pushkin’s poetic masterpiece weaves the story of the epic flood of the Neva River in 1824 with an ode to Czar Peter the Great, who envisioned and built the magnificent city on the Gulf of Finland. Another time, an Intourist guide with whom I traveled to Samarkand, and who knew I couldn’t sleep, handed me a bootleg copy of Gogol’s stories. “If you are awake, you may as well be reading these,” she said. Another time, I spent a few nights with a handsome Muscovite who was probably a KGB agent. Upon my departure for New York, he handed me a book called Nerve, a collection of poems by the Soviet poet and singer Vladimir Vysotsky, and inscribed it: To Marcia, my American dream. “It’s not much of a present,” he told me with a knowing shrug. “I am Russian, so it’s the only present.”
That day in Moscow, Pavel honored the death of Voznesensky the only way he knew.
“Do you think he was a great poet?” I had asked him.
Pavel stopped the car and turned around for emphasis, as if this were something I would never understand without seeing him say it. “He was our poet,” he said with a vigorous slash of his raised finger. “And that is what’s important.”
Adapted from A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life by Marcia Desanctis, published by Travelers’ Tales.