I finished The Two Lives in 2006 while the first lines were written in 1998, exactly on the eve of a magor economic crisis in Russia. Normally, dramatic and, sometimes, tragic events occur in my country in August. August 1989 was not an exception to the rule. It took me almost eight years to complete the book, so sometimes it reads as a diary.
Interest in this autobiography may lie in some of the factual material and the unique experiences contained therein and described through the frame of the present. It is written as sincerely as possible, and probably its most important feature is that the author is a rather typical representative of that generation of USSR citizens who have endured the most painful and widespread changes of the last twenty years. Intently observing Russia’s new history as it takes shape, he seems to be one of those lucky persons whom fate decreed would not merely swim with the tide and contemplate matters, but become an active participant in events. He did not set out to write the book with publication in mind for a wide circle of readers; something quite different prompted him to begin this labor:
Once upon a time, I wanted to share certain information and experiences with my son. Due to the hurly-burly of everyday concerns and the absence of complete mutual understanding between generations, fathers rarely share such deep matters with their children, and much that they might recount departs with them. However, I knew that my son would never receive such insights from any other source. And it would be even worse if he sought out the information, for it is well known that history gets rewritten regularly to please transient interests.
I gave the opening part of this book to my son when he turned fourteen--and it seemed the deed was done. But somehow the habit of noting down remarks continued, because I wanted at least one reflection of our surprising life, and the fulfillment of stunning changes, to exist in written form. It may not be a masterpiece or the official history of my generation, but I guarantee that before you lies an honest work, albeit one written for several people, and therefore full of contradictions and perhaps even banalities. Frequently as I have been writing I imagined addressing quite different people, now imagining sharing impressions with my neighbor, and then talking to a citizen of a different country. If my reader lives in Moscow or beyond the Urals, it will seem curious to him that I recall the good old days. But even if you have never seen the Kremlin in sunset, and you happen to live closer to the Easter chimes of Bavarian churches, or in the mountains of Liguria all yellow with mimosas, I hope that you will find in my musings echoes of your own experiences. Even if not, then at least I, for myself, will be able to draw back somewhat the curtain of secrecy which has enshrouded that almost mystical concept: “the Russian soul”…
Let us agree then that we still understand one another but little. The image of the uncouth Russian—amuzhikin fur hat, always drunk, with Kalashnikov in hand—is not only sad and far from truth, it keeps Russia from entering the World Trade Organization and the European Union. Stereotypes complicate relationships. Sometimes they block the road to understanding and trust – things important to join any union unless you are this union’s creator…
Occasionally unfair judgment based on stereotypes wounds the pride of the best representatives of my country—a country which with daily effort demonstrates that, along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Baryshnikov, and Nabokov, the Russian soil has given birth to legions of remarkable people. Unfortunately, it is not possible in a single hour to destroy this virtual Iron Curtain, which although it is an imagined wall, makes its real appearance in our life and on the road to full mutual understanding, and even now stands between Russian and the rest of the world. It is a wall constructed of inadequate information, stereotypes, lack of discernment, mistrust, and suffering. The strongest component of this new iron curtain is—indifference. But its most dangerous element is stereotypical thinking, because that happens to be so convenient: It is always good to know, in the complexities of our daily life, that short and comprehensible answers do exist—at least for a few questions.
I am writing this forward after a routine trip to New York where—in the stores, at the hotel, on the street, on sundry chance occasions—as soon as people learn that I am from Russia, they always ask: “It’s pretty cold over there, right?”
“Yes,” I answer, “Winters are pretty cold, but summers and spring are warmer than here…” I am telling them the truth and they smile at me politely, but don’t believe me. This stupidity—that my country is always cold—is a stereotype that endures, despite logic and the availability of animated televised weather predictions on the Euronews channel; and from time to time it drives me into despair.
On the other hand, it is funny to belong to a people whom many consider unusual, for, come to think of it, it’s actually true. But if we seriously set out to unravel the great secret surrounding the notorious Russian soul, most likely the secret will be connected to, and expose, other illusions. Most probably, we shall discover that there is no special Russian soul at all; there is simply a vast country, whose difficult fate has left its mark upon everything, including our daily life and behavior.
A wide variety of people live in my country, and many of them can appear strange, especially at first. But remember that we all, without exception, proceed along the road of life upon one planet, and we breathe the same air. Like everyone, we Russians love our children, our husbands and wives, and respect our parents. We suffer when people do not understand, or underestimate us. We like to laugh and joke, and are ever ready to speak ironically about ourselves. We Russians are exceptionally lighthearted and devil-may-care…but tell me, who has not, even if only once, given in to a momentary urge?
Sometimes we may be naive, or unaccommodating and lazy, but are these not universal mortal failings? We remember kindness, but also can be aggressive and vengeful. Nevertheless, we are disposed to forgive quickly and do not hold grudges, and despite all the Great Power chauvinism that flows in the blood of Russians, we can occasionally be cosmopolitan and receptive to foreign achievements. Though we criticize Bush the Younger for his aggressiveness and appalling impoliteness, we have for the most part studied the United States, and our young people drink thousands of liters of Coca-Cola a day and know dialog from Tarantino movies by heart.
We are also captivated by German cars and drink Bavarian beer, and German punctuality has come to be a part of the Russian lexicon. If you are in time or simply disciplined we use a proverb “German punctuality (accuracy)”. Our earth is dotted with the graves of those who perished during the Second World War (which we call the Great Patriotic War); and echoes from those terrible battles, sounding from the shores of nice German rivers Isar and Oder [and many other places], live on in each of our families. In the corner ofevery house, especially in the countryside, next to icons and lamps you will see portraits of boys or men who went to the front and never returned home. My grandfather perished from fragments of a German bomb by the city of Rzhev in the first days of the war. But now you see how all that hatred, which hurled people into bayonet attacks during the evil days of the 1940s—has gone away somewhere. Of course, what remains foremost is our attitude towards fascism; and to that has been added new understanding about the tragedy of our people, who have suffered not only from Hitler aggression, but from diabolical Stalinist genocide.
It is a pity that young people know little about that terrible war, in which people methodically destroyed one another. Our victory over fascism—which was both a national tragedy and glory—was expressed in lyrics to the song “Victory Day”: “…Celebration with graying temples. Joy with tearful eyes…” My generation most likely will be the last one which not only knows a great deal about this war, but also understands it, and has keenly felt its sufferings. It is a paradox, but in Russia there are pro-fascist organizations, against which the government struggles unsuccessfully. Surely this is an extremely important fact—and a shameful and bitter one—that in Russia, the country which laid many millions of lives upon the altar of the sacred war against fascism, such racist hatred has reignited.
So who are we? Simply people, who primarily think about good, and are more likely to trust in fate than in insurance companies; a people able to love, at once delighting in and giving in to ecumenical sorrows [a typical Russian way to spend time – feel sorry for everyone and oneself, usually comes with spirits. Sometimes I wonder if this is simply a national means of mental therapy]; a people inclined to be coarse and polite; kind in words and nonchalant in our own affairs…
We also have one unrealized (and to many an unrecognized) goal: having been born in a gigantic empire, we are ready to endure patiently many things, if only we can prolong or in part restore our greatness and the respect of others. I hope, such a desire is easy to understand.
In this small book I describe segments from the life of my generation: one of the most notable segments, if you wish, of Russia’s new history. In these pages I have tried as much as possible to set down objective facts, yet can only expect to dispel somewhat several mistakes concerning my country of which I am aware. And I would like to describe my own thoughts and experiences so as to better understand them. To strive to speak truthfully and write in the name of an entire generation is, of course, too much to ask; therefore, this book is not a manifesto, but rather an album of pictures and associations. We shall see what feelings it evokes among my peers.
The changes destined by this generation to endure (including one who at the beginning of the third millennium turned 35) destroyed [what can be described as] the set pace of development of that “great human commonality”—the Soviet people. Historians, psychologists, and politicians are still researching this epoch. From a distance, history seems majestic [to evolve majestically], and the further questions delve into the past, the easier they become to answer. The present work is truly one of the first concrete attempts to recount what we lived through, about things that vanished forever after the fall of the USSR, and things that remained unchanged—the essence, as it were, of our national character.
Not every generation on this earthly journey gets to live, through the will of god,twolives. In that regard, my generation is truly “lucky.” We might have been more fortunate had the dramatic and unexpected changes in our country never happened—the eastern benediction: “May you never live in an epoch of change” is full of wisdom—but if someone were to ask me if I’d have liked to freeze my country’s history in the mid-1980s, I would simply have to say no.
While compiling this book, I managed to note down various parallel events; and the account includes travel notes, for I go abroad quite often. The reader may find something of practical use here, but [the narrative] will [probably] be most interesting as one Russian’s glance at the surrounding world. I’ve tried to be as concise as possible, and to describe my own personality and deeds. It is another matter that one’s self-estimation does not always coincide with the opinion of others, so the author from the start asks forgiveness of those who know him well, should it seem that he has set down his own views in an insufficiently objective manner.
The writer Vasili Aksyonov, in an interview, said that he rejects objectivity in a memoir: in his view, memoirs “include false memory.” Regarding this, Aksyonov recounted the notable instance of Osip Mandelstam, who somewhere wrote about a childhood dream in which he entered a large philharmonic hall and turned on all the lights, whereupon everything burst into spectacular electric light. Over time, Mandelstam forgot that it had been but a dream and came to believe in it as fact. I have tried my utmost not to over-embellish events, and will state right here that I have been sincere about everything—though with oneself that is practically impossible.
A word about the facts in this book: people, place names, events—everything is authentic. The author from the start begs forgiveness of those who may not be thrilled to see their names in this book. One other thing: I began to put together these notes in May 1998. By February 2005, it was not that I’d actually come to hate the work, but rather that, as I reread it, I began to make more and more corrections, and so categorically ceased tolikealmost everything I’d written. Yet I had to do something with it, so I made a decision to complete my labor, and leave the earlier writings as is. Furthermore, I once again became convinced that my peers and I are simply caught in a web of contradictions. Opinions, government relations, and the society around us are all changing chaotically at the same time changing (I remark on this in the epilog). Either it is a generational characteristic or I am simply am too impressionable.
Each young person, at a given moment, composes a more or less well-formed notion of good and evil, and ideals and even faith come to emerge. My belief-system formed in the early 80s was attacked by changes accompanied by all-new information both from domestic glasnost sources and foreign sources, which had been allowed. All that mess caused me to begin taking certain positions on matters I had never dared to think of. Just as the axes of anti-alcohol hysteria chopped down the vineyards of Crimea, so too did countries with a democratic press unceremoniously destroy the living root of my truth and my future. Somewhat later, I myself set out upon the warpath against the old regime, and came to that great crossroad upon which the vivid and dramatic events of August 1991 unfolded. In an epoch of fanatical and general nihilism, the old belief-system once made itself known to us. But this time, it was not faith that moved us, but an internal protest againstthe violence to our consciousness—when one day they ask you with trepidation to blow the dust off a plaster Ilyich (small statures of Lenin were everywhere) and tomorrow you are told that “in fact Lenin was not that good at all, sorry, you have to reconsider your beliefs”. Often our protest took the form of singing Komsomol (young communist’s organization) songs and “hits” about the Civil War—the best songs on this theme were sturdy compositions named after some exploit or other. (The songs are really good and very romantic, truly bring up ones spirit and strength to the extent needed to stand up and fight for freedom and revolution… We grew with those songs so they are still popular regardless of the fact that communist ideology had long ago discredited itself) In the “new Russia” we sang these songs at the end of parties, and at weddings and birthdays—and for our wives this served as a signal of the approach of the so-called “last stage.” They would say, “oh, well, that’s it, they are done now, no more drinks”.
But these songs, old movies, and children’s tales, filmed with the genial actors of our time, were not conveyors of strict doctrinal lessons we learned from European revolutionary ‘education” (French revolution, Karl Marx’s theory etc.) about class struggle; but rather, they expressed people’s real belief in the high ideals of friendship, love, and comradeship. This was their most important feature, and not the Communist Party insertions into the movie, which we took more as one of the rules of the game, about as important as the presence of an ordinary ambulance brigade on a movie set. In these films, in this culture, lay a real strength that united people and prevented cynics from giving voice to their earthbound principles—and for that reason we sang these songs and watched these films. In our relations with homemade capitalism, we wanted to remain as pure as the heroes of our youth. And we probably did so, at least somewhat, because neither the new nor the newest Russian authority had anything new to offer us, except a fixation, which they cultivated, in super-power mania and a belief in the dollar sign.
And so, for this reason, our consciousness has been split in two, and the parts have in no way been brought together. There is no place on earth where this second half of our “I” does not catch up with us. Now, in my 40thyear, it seems to me that my world view continues to evolve, and to this day I have no final sense of which road we are on. Nor do I know which road we need to be on.
May 1998-January 2005
In May 1998, I was a happy man. My future wife and I had found a large apartment in the center of Moscow. I was swimming in a relative and unaccustomed abundance of funds, friends, and enjoyable work. And there was another reason to rejoice, as well—for, after all, not every member of my generation had the good fortune to become co-owner of an FM radio station.
It was while in such a good spirits, on one of my days off, just as a genuine and incomparably beautiful Moscow sunset started to light up the sky—that I set down the first lines of this book. It began thus:
This is quite an adventurous undertaking, to speak to you in literary form about myself, my past and present life, and about my friends. Will you understand me? It is, after all, not space that divides us, but time: a whole 24 years. And all this time the world has been changing, and our country has, in general, changed completely. But life has so many such interesting events and metamorphoses that at any one moment it fills a single human soul to bursting. And so one begins to write down thoughts and memories, not even thinking about whether they might interest anyone. But in addressing one’s own son, a beloved and innocent relation, for some reason there is hope that such experiences will perhaps be of use. And while, like all the rest, you, my sonny continuously travel your journey, you can always, as you wish, to compare your actions with those described in this little book. And so, I resume writing. The window is ajar. Soon in will flow Moscow’s nocturnal perfume. I am stopping time and slowly turning it around. Today, on the boundary between two millennia, nothing can escape my memory and imagination.”
With the passing of several years, I reread many times the words set down on that memorable day, and noted with surprise how the style shifted and even seemed to reflect events in my life. My country changed along with me and my friends; authorities and leaders departed, as did dogmas and emotional attachments. A new background to life emerged. People in my circle started to talk more about money and material delights; there were fewer warm gatherings and sincere emotions. Since then, as I wrote the book, while the world underwent certain changes, my country shifted with fantastic energy. In fact, it traversed such a long road in such an unrealistically short period that sometimes I still can’t believe that everything we experienced “before”—actually happened.
Sometimes it feels as if God took pleasure in giving us a second life on earth before we had even completed our first. Our journey began in a nation of equal, but narrow-minded, inhabitants of a mysterious world power, to whom the universal blessings of contemporary civilization were inaccessible. However, to be fair, one must note that this was not only a country of identical houses, schools, kindergartens, and a single political party. It was also a country of humble and innocent people, mostly with kind eyes and sincere impulses--people evidently being completely misled by their extremely aged leaders, who willingly or unwillingly exploited the best feelings of this generation: that is, its romanticism and faith.
Our journey began in the land of the Soviets, the Soviet Union, which possessed a government created by the first Bolsheviks in 1917, and destroyed by Bolsheviks of a new sort at the beginning of the 1990s. As long as an old Russia existed—the one which emerged from the social structure of the USSR, as did Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Moldova, Byelorussia, Georgia, and nine other republics—I remained confident about the future. I say this with absolute sincerity, while searching for truth and striving for an objective appraisal. The high level of social security among any average USSR citizen went beyond competition. The first thing a young person of seven ran into when it came time for him to sit at a school desk was our readily available and fairly competent educational system. True, it was also the kindergartens, where, free of cost, parents completely without fear left their children. There the little ones ate, took naps, had fun, studied, amused themselves with various inventions, and put on innocent children’s spectacles for their parents.
With a watchful eye, the powers-that-be oversaw and controlled the quality of the upbringing of the young generation. And in the end, when the inevitable first day of September arrived, the seven year olds, dressed in clean, shiny, nice looking school uniforms and gripping flowers in their hands, went off to the nearest school. Generally speaking, this is what happens even now; only they say the quality of education has deteriorated, and that even for private schools there aren’t enough qualified students. Others insist that the changes in education have only been positive. I think there is a measure of truth in both versions. I only know that I will always remember my own school, which I entered in 1972, with gratitude and a slight sadness.
I was born in Moscow, in August 1965, twenty years after the war and more than two decades before the beginning of perestroika. They named me Yuri, because everyone in those days was captivated by Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut. My parents met in Moscow, though they themselves were not native Muscovites: Papa had come to the capital from the Ryazanskaya oblast (Ryazan region), and Mama from the Kaluzhskaya (Kaluga region). My father attended school and served in the air force as a bomber marksman and radio operator; and after demobilization became a construction worker. Mom was a nurse in one of the capital hospitals; and at first we lived in a single room of a communal apartment on the hospital grounds.
I have many rich impressions of the first three years of my childhood, mainly because I found myself living outside the country. When father worked on the construction of the Soviet embassy in Ulan-Bator, our family spent almost two years abroad in Mongolia. (Regarding this country there is, of course, some truth to the maxim, that: ‘A chicken is not a bird, and Mongolia is not abroad.’)
We lived in a section of Ulan-Bator reserved for Soviet specialists and military. The area reminded one of a privileged reserve: here even the department store retained a Soviet soldier with a WW2 automatic Shpagina weapon, more simply referred to as PPSH submachine gun. I still have vivid childhood memories of the “sopki,” the low Mongolian hills covered with tulips thick as grass on a golf course; and of a huge fish—the “nalim” (burbot); and of the Soviet military pilots from a nearby air force base whom father hosted in our little apartment; and finally, of the backsides bared by a row of Chinese border guards on the opposite side of a river--evidently as some sort of a demonstration of friendship between peoples.
After returning to Moscow from Mongolia, we lived again for a time at Hospital Number 5, “the fifth municipal.” Soon, in 1971, my parents obtained their own apartment, in a newly constructed area at the edge of the city. These apartments were given out, in turn, free to all city workers. In Russia we say: “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth”; people did not choose their living quarters, so when they received their allotted corner, even if it did not completely suit them, they did not complain. The size of the apartment depended upon the number of family members, or sometimes one’s situation, and whether one had done any particular (exceptional) military or public service.
Our home stood almost in the forest, in a region called Kon’kovo, after the old-fashioned name of the village Kon’kovo-Derevlevo. The metro hadn’t been built out there yet, so at first we had to drive to the nearest station in a half-filled automobile. All the same, it was our very own apartment and I well remember the happy faces of my relatives and the enthusiasm with which they arranged their new lives as private individuals.
My parents befriended the neighbors almost immediately as they met in the entry to our multi-apartment complex. Such were the times. The communal apartment mentality endured in people for a long time--but there was nothing wrong with that. People lived as if they belonged to one big family: they argued, made up, helped each other, and had a good time. They complained, of course, and sometimes black envy seeped into the communal circle.
Ordinary life consisted of vulgar communism. Whereas, in social life, these same people “officially” built a Marxist sort of communism: a society in which each would receive according to need. All else aside, this society should have been without human defect, including criminality... At all.
Communism presented itself to my child’s mind as a sterile marble science center in which lots of beautiful men and women in white clothes were forging progress. Progress, as understood by this seven year old boy, was synonymous with a space rocket bearing the inscription “USSR.”. Of course, even prior to my birth the nation had been singing about how “we shall leave our footprints on the dusty path of a far off planet.” That there existed an actual link between justice for all and the successful mastery of outer space was, of course, the bold creative object of Marxist theory. There was even another, more prosaic, association, and one closely tied to reality: in early childhood I knew for certain that, when the communist future arrived, I would be able to go to a store and take for free everything I wanted and as much as my heart desired.
And so, little as they spoke of it, everyone knew that our overall goal was a happy life under communism. Thoughtless citizens joked about this as hard as they could and dreamed up stories about, say, the military rocket station which had a poster painted on the entrance stating: “Our target–is Communism!.” (In Russian there’s one word meaning both “target” and “goal” depending on circumstances). In fact, such posters covered factories and, sometimes, schools and other public institution so one could easily be hanged thoughtlessly at a missile base… In more “problematic” regions of the USSR, the jokes grew even bolder. Once I arrived in Lvov (Western Ukraine) and on top of the local train station building I saw the slogan: “Long Live Communism!”—in which the phrase was slightly changed however, so that the essence of the written was something like To Hell with Communism.
But these were usually the exception. All the same, communism for many people took the place of religious faith—and was itself a faith, first of all by no means fearful, and which until now had stabilized the tumultuous USSR - mix of peoples, religions, cultures, and traditions.
Many people truly believed that the future likely meant having a new society of social justice. Of course almost no one, in my opinion, expected to see the day when a tribune from a regular Party session would decree that communism had been attained. But the interesting point was that almost everyone--including me, even on the threshold of adulthood—was indescribably happy to have been born in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, of course, propaganda played its role: When they showed news reports from Hamburg or Paris, I was truly saddened by the unhappy inhabitants of these cities, who risked being robbed or killed every minute. Also frightening was the omnipotence and supreme role of money in their society—this, too, was truly sad.
Even later, during the early 1980s, an anecdote circulated in Moscow about a Soviet television correspondent who walks down Fifth Avenue in New York, and asks a passerby: “How are you?” The person smiles and replies: “I’m fine, thank you. It’s Labor Day and we have the day off.” Whereupon the Soviet reporter turns to the camera and announces sadly: “The man says that he hasn’t eaten for three days.”
It is good, of course that those times seem to have faded back into something like the eternal summer of the past. Of course, it is a pity that this doesn’t apply to some Russian media .Official TV-channels of late have begun to air all kinds of nonsensical commentaries and tendentious foreign news reports.
As far as our colleagues in the USA are concerned, I often want to ask: Why is it, with such an array of topic material, and so many western-owned telecommunications companies, that such standard inspirational fruit and news fare comes out of Russia,? Why on the screen do there appear so many of those notorious old women wearing handkerchiefs on their heads? It gives the impression that television companies hire special units of old Russian ladies as stringers so as to create a sense of the utter hopelessness of the crowd. Why in reports from Moscow streets do we see so much trash and so many shabby views of men in fur hats? What is all this? Is it echoes of Russian stereotypes; or typical hackwork; or, excuse me, is it the result of a political tendency? I’d like to believe the first, or, at worst, the second.
Whatever, propaganda is merely one side of the coin; the other is—real life. I am trying to be as objective and honest as possible in my assessment of the Soviet past. And at present it seems to me that our optimistic perceptions of that reality and our belief in the uniqueness of our social system were not ideological, but sincere convictions. In the final account, we who grew up in Russian territory considered ourselves to be Russians, or “Russian” in a larger sense,regardless of our nationality—and that somehow the unshakable, centuries-old history of the nation rose up on a foundation of this understanding. We were patriots of a large country—the USSR—but our patriotism might also have been most definitely a display of national self-awareness.
School years. Musketeer and Indians. A Young Communist is born
At first I was timid and inconspicuous in school. My earliest childhood had been spent under the care of my mother and grandmother, who supervised and pampered me as much as they could. Raising children was no simple matter in the USSR—not that it was a huge expense, for the government provided many things for free, including the children’s food, even for the youngest. But the lack of food products, clothing, private transportation—all this should have turned a young mother’s life into a nightmare. However, people made arrangements and even found the time and possibility of being happy.
Modesty is a remarkable state, but at first it bothered me a lot. In school, as in various other semi-closed societies with their unique microclimates, every person falls into a certain role. Mine was that of being an ordinary boy, one of many, and for that I had to endure torments and, especially, my classmates’ indifference--naturally, even from the abovementioned Vasya. (Almost each school had its ‘Vasya’ or whatever the name it was then—usually a hoodlum, a pupil with only the lowest mark "two" in his record, and, no matter how amusing it may seem, these “Vasyas” actually were most often called Vasili). In a popular Soviet satirical movie series there was always “Vasya”, the bad boy who eventually got his bitters for bad behavior. It was supposed that those examples would teach youngsters to be good and polite… Already by seventh grade (13-14 years old) our local Vasya could give a punch in the snoot not only to a tenth grader, but to his father - heavy-drinker as well. Vasya did not like me, because for some reason I couldn’t conceal my hostility, though I was really scared of him. Well, God be with him; this story is not about him.
And so I was a weakling, a typical momma’s boy. I wasn’t happy about it and often suffered when I couldn’t be first, or be the center of attention. But the development of a long-lasting inferiority complex was hindered by the unexpected discovery (at age 13) of a desire to become a writer.
At night, I sat for hours at my writer’s desk, resisting both the street and television, and wrote “novels” about pirates, musketeers, and school. These juvenile and innocent works, the “eclectically” compiled impressions from books I had read, and infrequent adventure films, were written sincerely and selflessly—and the pages of my school notebooks extolled the virtues of manhood, self-sacrifice, nobility, and friendship. For us then the concept of “friendship” had immense significance.
Only towards the middle of the 1990s, when ideals about the “new times” became firmly established, did the word “brother” ring with an unexpected new meaning. It served to identify a degree of trust in one’s friends, or in a certain group of citizens, who, having attained success, might number in the dozens.
But in youth, friendship remained friendship, without gradations in degrees of quality or purity—whereas about love we preferred to speak in whispers, at night and by candlelight.
We made friends openly, sincerely, and often somewhat theatrically, having read the novels of Alexander Dumas, Emilio Salgari, and other adventure classics of the past. We made wooden swords, played at being musketeers and challenged each other to duels. We wrote letters with pigeon-feather quills and put a wax weal on them, and wove and unraveled good-natured intrigues. Once, however, during a “duel” at a football field beside the school, which in between ourselves we named after the monastery in Paris where D’Artagnan crossed swords for the first time in the Duma’s novel) we had the misfortune of fighting some adversaries who surpassed us in both impudence and resolve… Well, we got walloped by these hoods from the neighboring district and didn’t get a chance to put our wooden blades to the test. Our retreat looked more like a shameful rout. After that, I suffered for a long time and in my thoughts and childhood slumbers dreamed of drinking deep from the sweet cup of just retribution.
These games, taking place in the very edge of our reality in those days, gradually, like a trickle of water polishing a rough pebble, shaped my character. Almost all children experienced the delights of such games. Basically, of course, boys played at war, but everything was a test of the participants’ character. Since certain of our delights approached reality to a maximum degree, from time to time they indeed posed a tangible risk in which a person could display his authentic qualities.
Until we became infatuated with the Musketeers, we still had cowboy and Indian games. I excelled at being an Apache brave and almost set our beloved Konkovo forest alight; and, along with the other kids, I requisitioned dozens of metal covers from trash bins in the neighbors’ entryways. These we used as shields against spears and arrows (with real tin points), and conducted battles, fifty people on a side, on a field in the woods. Ostrovityanova Street ran alongside, where now they’ve put up garages; and people at the bus stop and passersby viewed with curiosity, or with horror, how, amidst smoke and fires and wild “Indian” battle cries, we kids decked ourselves in war paint (watercolors) and hurled spears at each other, fired organized volleys from our bows, and ferociously hacked each other to bits with our tin tomahawks.
The main battles took place in autumn, when everyone had come back from summer pioneer camp, or the village, or the south; and the grass had dried out and could be set afire so as to raise warlike spirits. And what it wasn’t worth to be initiated as an Indian! By comparison, entry into the Komsomol or the Communist Party seems to me now somehow lacking in seriousness or, one could say, perhaps even in formality. Candidates for tribal membership were tied to a statue of our Indian god Manitou (artfully crafted from a concrete post sticking out of the ground). The chief then picked up a bow or tomahawk, stepped back 15 or 20 paces from the unlucky fellow, and let fly while aiming at a special mark above his head—the idea being that, if Manitou was willing to have the initiate as a tribe-member, he would not suffer. I’ll never forget how, relying on this mark, I once managed to smack one of the candidate Apaches in the mouth with the tomahawk’s wooden handle. It wasn’t a laughing matter then—and the fellow was simply not accepted into the tribe.
In those crazy days we pure, open souls could smell the prairie in the air of the movie theaters, air mixed with the odor of autumn leaves and the earth warming up after a hard frost—the inimitable aroma of Moscow’s new suburbs, triumphantly and ruthlessly gnawing their way through the ancient forests around Moscow. We studied, assiduously or carelessly, and in the evenings made bows and arrows, but some of us were already hooked on James Fennimore Cooper novels and retold them to our friends. At the same time an epidemic started up of unbridled affection for any films pertaining to Indians. Thus, I went to see the Yugoslavian-German film “Vinettu, Son of Inchoochoon,” with Goiko Mitich in the lead role, precisely 18 times. We arrived at the “Vityaz”(“Warrior”) movie theater wearing pants with fringes, which our attentive mothers and grandmothers had sewn on at night, and immersed ourselves in the beautiful tale about kindly redskins and badly educated white-skin occupiers.
When, much later, I saw my first real American western, I was truly outraged that the bad guys, savages, murderers and alcoholics were not the pale-skins, but my beloved Indian heroes. Our Soviet Indians, conceived in our East Block studio “Defa” from the DDR or East Germany, were completely of another sort: not perfidious or scalp-hunters, but absolutely “politically cultured”. And that’s how they’ve always stayed in my mind.
Lyosha leaves. Underground discos. The Institute. A Time of Changes.
Our gang began to split up in the fall of 1984, and one by one got inducted into the army. We had a series of send-off parties, as a result of which I skipped classes at the Institute and the class leader, Sergei Khabotin (presently a correspondent for ITAR-TASS news agency), covered for me as best he could—one could be kicked out of the Institute in a jiffy for the slightest infraction.
Lyosha was the first to go into the army. During a send-off party we found out that his crew was to be “trained” at Termez [Termez, a town near THE THEN Soviet-Afghan border was one of the places where the army gathered enlisted men to be sent to the war. Groups of enlisted boys were traditionally called “teams” here, Lyosha’s “team” was to be sent to Termez, which meant he would go to Afghanistan] and then was supposed to proceed on to Afghanistan.
At that time we knew little about the Afghan war; we spoke more often about our“international duty to a friendly nation,”and even of victories, but even in those days people were openly sharing rumors about major losses, and zinc coffins, and twenty-year old veterans who had been through real hell. And that’s where Lyosha had gone, our kind and humble Alex (whose mother had carried his forgotten cold-weather shirt from one train car to the next when we went on our trip to Crimea)—after the noisy send-off party at his pad near the Belyaevo metro-stop shifted to the very gate on Vvedensky Street behind which all our friends disappeared for two years!
And then, after two winters and springs had passed, instead of a sharp-witted lad there returned to us, alive and well, a “big daddy” in a sailor’s style striped vest (usually weared by paratroopers) who received us in his home and showed off what he described as battle trophies.
Antonio and I had grown up more slowly than our friends, who went to the Army but our childhood left us soon enough.
In 1982, that is, right after school, I entered the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. In theory, I was supposed to go into the army that October, and in March had gone to the enlistment office for an interview. I showed up with a black eye—the result of leaping off a ski-jump—at which they smiled mockingly and let me know how happy they would be, with such marks, to send me off to a paratrooper regiment (paratroopers are considered an elite force here, well, perhaps, like marines in the States. At the same time, they are famous for “extreme behavior”, frequently break up fights etc. when on a leave).
In principle I was not opposed to this, for despite my desire to enter the Institute, I harbored no special illusions about being able to do so. To put it mildly, not everyone was accepted there by a long shot. Nevertheless, I decided to test my luck and studied English hard, and as part of this effort continued to write all kinds of “novels” and stories. At the same time I went through certain impossible interviews and tests of loyalty before the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) district committee, and so forth and so on.
To gain the very right to pass exams you had to prove your loyalty to “the system” first of all, they checked your views and opinion of politics etc. thoroughly. They did not use lie detectors but the check up was really serious. The system had to be sure that you were the right person the state would spent lots of money to educate in an elite Institute.
That summer I—no kidding—memorized all my history and literature notebooks, and by August 30th, in the APN building [Novosti News Agency],I received my student ID card from the hand of Stanislav Kondrashov, who was then a famous political commentator. So great was my desire to pass that I had studied desperately and stayed up for three days so as to make sure that in the stress of any situation I’d be able to recall the date of Spartacus’ uprising or the Crimean War of 19thcentury. I had always adored history in high school; however, literature was attractive too, if only to show off one’s epistolary abilities. Sometimes the literature teacher would give a blow to youthful vanity by criticizing my untraditional conclusions or polemics. For example, in one of my essays I called the prominent Russian critic Belinski (he lived in 19thcentury) a “peevish and grouchy greybeard.” In such cases, the teachers mustered the courage not to leave a grade, but confined themselves to putting a circled question mark in the margin of the notebook. In accordance with Soviet tradition, I usually showed respect for authoritative critics and elucidators, as well as the classics of literature. But in one of his articles, Belinski had dared to “poke” at Alexander Dumas, Pere: the idol of my youth!
After entering the Institute, I never thought of arguing outside permissible bounds while preparing to take the examinations. It was hard to appear smarter than one actually was. But you had to be good at recalling specifics. That could make the teachers believe you know the subject. Thus, during the oral exam in literature I was asked a question concerning Lev Tolstoy. Chatting with me about this and that for a couple of minutes, grey-haired professor P.I. Pluksh began, almost by-the-by, to interest himself in the specific name Lev Nikolaevich had given, inWar and Peace, to partisans fighting against Napoleon’s army. The answer burst through my teeth; and “the bludgeon of the people’s war” gained me the momentous grade of A or the highest “mark 5” according to the Soviet grade system.
In those days Moscow State Institute of International Relations was actually an elite school (and it hasn’t gone downhill later on). It had a unique system of selecting young people with extraordinary qualities. So, I had to face a serious competition. It was not without reason that hundreds who later became distinguished politicians, diplomats, journalists, society leaders, and even industry leaders, emerged from its walls.
The Institute, of course, did not train business people; it simply taught us how to work and think in all kinds of situations, much of which was to be of great help in years to come.
How did I manage to get into what was then a completely closed institute? I hope the sole reason was that perseverance knows no bounds. Having “proletarian” origins didn’t hurt, either: my father was a humble Moscow construction worker, though one of top quality, so in my application they wrote that I was “from the working class”. Also, in “point five” of the application everything was noted down as “normal”: this was the part where they asked about one’s nationality. Being Russian or Ukrainian would be considered “normal”, but the same couldn’t be said about Jews… It’s hard now to make judgments about the criteria that determined whether or not one’s documents were accepted prior to taking the Institute exams. I hope that I have not disappointed my teachers, and I would like very much to believe that my country did not waste money on me, for the Institute in those years was completely free.
There are, to be sure, malicious tongues that maintain that ourgratiseducation—as well as other aspects of the social sphere, such as the symbolic apartment rents and basement prices for gas and electricity—is a relative notion. They say that actually all of these things were paid for by our parents, and subsequently by each of us out of own purse; or, more likely, out of those funds which didnotmake it into that purse; whereas those funds that did, make up the miserly wages of the simple Soviet citizenry.
Higher education in those days gave one a good chance of choosing a profession and a career, though not everyone strived to get into institutes or universities exclusively for that reason. First of all, many institutes served as a shield from army service. Secondly, it was prestigious to have a higher degree. The vivid Soviet propaganda about special professional work opportunities stood in start contrast to the actual course of events, when the social prestige of these professions fell catastrophically.
Finally, many young people headed for institutes simply out of the unavoidableneedof getting higher education, because there was an administrative and even, in individual cases, criminal liability in the USSR against “parasitism.” In other words, you had no rightnotto work. During the twilight of the Soviet era you could count many rock musicians among the ranks of street sweepers, furnace stokers, and sanitation workers. The head of the rock group “Kino,” Victor Tsoi, worked as a stoker for a large district and even lived in a boiler room with the heating equipment. These were the real rock-and-rollers, because so-called official musicians from VIA or “vocal instrumental ensembles” as they were called officially got signed up for state concert events with monthly fees.
I was only 17 when I entered the Institute: the youngest in the class. It seemed that I was encircled by giants who had already experienced real life: Oleg Semyonov, Sergei Sukhoruchko, Lyonya Bakun, and of course our class leader, Sergei Khabotin.
From the slushy Moscow autumn of 1982, we shall transport ourselves briefly to New York City, 1999. Alyona and I are sitting in the kitchenette of a hotel at the intersection of Broadway and 76thStreet, waiting for Sergei who is coming up from Washington, D.C., where he works as a correspondent with the news agency ITAR-TASS, to be our guest. He is arriving at around one in the afternoon. We order a carafe from the “Mormondo,” a suspicious-looking little Italian restaurant on 73rdStreet. Finally Sergei shows up, carrying a bottle of tequila and packets of ketchup…After and hour and a half we return from the restaurant and with the help of the Mexican vodka recall our youth together at the Institute, a time so unlike our head-spinning present reality.
Back in 1982 Sergei and I never would have supposed that it would be so simple and easy for us to get together overseas someday, to dine in a restaurant, drink tequila in a hotel room, and in general, live as we pleased and meet whenever possible. Oh, we dreamed about traveling around the world, but, remembering the hurdles we’d have to overcome, we tried to hide our dreams a little longer.
The hurdles weren’t the problem: it was just that somehow you had to obtain therightto overcome them.
…The western “mass culture” that passed through our customs gates gave us many gifts of discovery and pleasant minutes of semi-forbidden bliss. Its musical injections fostered our education, and kept it from growing apathetic in the limited confines of the “official” performance stage. Even before Gorbachev, real openings had already come to our lives through the trenchant lyrics of authentic Soviet rockers, such as Nautilus Pompilius and his song “Bound by a Single Chain”; there was Kino, Grebenshchikov…This wasn’t music for the dance floor, but rather for listening to while hanging out together, drinking strong tea, smoking, thinking, drawing conclusions.
In their way, they were the revolutionary songs of new times.
Whatever the genre, music brought us together. And if we wanted to have some more fun, we returned to the emancipated world of the clubs and discos. During the 1980s, these Moscow discos were our main entertainment: clubs of like-minded individuals, romantic islands in an ocean of officiousness and sanctimoniousness. They provided a whiff of spring, even in winter, in thirty degrees of frost, and the aroma of mysterious “bourgeois” life. And it was wonderful that we never got lost in the process, but remained such consummate romantic poets.
Outside the dance clubs walls, ordinary life continued: There was the komsomol; there were party resolutions and the anti-alcohol campaign; and finally, there was the Institute… We and other USSR citizens managed to live our lives in a huge country and to study; but in the evenings, over and over again we returned to an illusory world where music and camera-flash strobe-lights stimulated our imagination. It was almost always cheerful, and we were almost always happy—almost.
There were days when I really started to feel ashamed. For the terrible truth was seeping through by various means from the southern borders of our motherland—from there where, in 110-degrees F heat Leshka Borozdin was serving. His letters weren’t noted for their sincerity: basically, Leshka joked and demanded that we start buying vast quantities of spirits right away, for rumors about an anti-alcohol campaign had been stirring up “a limited contingent” of our forces in Afghanistan. [Soviet media did not call Russian troops in Afghanistan “soldiers” or “troops”. They were ordered to use phrases like “the limited contingent of Soviet troops on Afghanistan”. Why? New shadowy definitions were invented to distract our public opinion from such words like “war”, “invasion”, “occupation”]. Our friend’s jocular tone did not in any way correspond to the increasing rumors about our military losses. My peers were dying, fulfilling, as they said in those days, their “international duty”; however, the point of this war at once was rather complicated to understand. It wasn’t possible to have an open discussion at the Institute about the Afghanistan situation in those days.
They say the army fought staunchly and bravely. More than fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers stayed behind forever in that country, and at the beginning of the ‘80s there started to appear on the streets of Moscow twenty-year-old fellows with decorations and medals on their chests. It is awful to recall the notorious situations when many elderly people, not understanding the truth about the war in the south, ridiculed these young lads and accused them of stealing the government awards... (‘Say, sonny boy here has pinned a Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union on his lapel! Does he know what it took to earn this in the Second World War?’…)
In a closed, peaceful country, where the majority of posted police carried a glass and salted cucumbers in their holsters. (THEY WERE UNARMED IN THOSE DAYS, so, actually people joked about glasses and “zakuska”) people didn’t believe that a terrible war was going on. It was hard to imagine that somewhere, way to the south, our soldiers were spilling their blood and blowing themselves up with grenades so as to avoid getting captured or coming under the knife of the mujahadin, who did not appreciate our “disinterested” intervention.
For what were my friends fighting? The answer then was a clear as day: our army was “fulfilling its international duty” by defending the interests of the Afghan revolution. This followed from the Bolshevik utopian vision of a socialist victory among the masses of the entire planet. Out of inertia we supported regimes set up under the red flag, while at the same time we shared spheres of influence with the Americans.
Moreover, the USSR had no need of an unstable Afghanistan, with which it shared a common border. And surely who needed an unpredictable regime, a hotbed of terrorism, and supplier of narcotics to half the world? The USA and NATO actively assisted the mujahadin with arms and money, and permitted these lethal forces to enter Afghanistan through Pakistan. For every Russian killed, Afghan mujahadin (or ‘dukhi’, a short word for “dushman” or “bandit”) as our soldiers called them) received a reward in American currency. When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, this feudal country was thrown into chaos and confusion and transformed into an uncontrollable base for terrorists and narcotics dealers. In the official version, it was here that the notorious Al Qaeda found shelter, and also that champion foe of the Soviet forces, terrorist number one: Mr. Bin Laden.
With Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika, the first timid conversations began about the uselessness of this war.
Later came a period of full-speed withdrawals.
Some argued that the Politburo’s decision to place soldiers in Afghanistan had been criminal. Others contended that by exiting in 1989 we had cancelled out our victories and left our allies in Afghanistan to the mercy of fate. I will not attempt to judge the farsightedness of our decision to send in the soldiers; I only know that interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, especially by military means, bodes well neither for the victims of such aggression nor its initiators. Nor does it matter what blessings come from the goal being pursued by the latter: in the end, innocent people suffer, and in vain.
One of my classmates at the Institute was a relative of the pro-Soviet Afghan leader Babrak Karmal. He had come to study in the Soviet Union in 1982, at which point there was a radical shift of power in Afghanistan, and that guy, along with thousands of other Afghans, was cynically abandoned—without work, livelihood, or means of returning to his country where, after our forces left, he would simply have been eradicated as a traitor. At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union was mired in its own problems, and our government was not in the mood for its own former satellites. Having neither Russian nor, Afghan citizenship after the power in that country changed, and since he served the previous regime they were not welcomed at home, our former partners became victims of political machinations. As it turns out, no one answered for the misfortunes and mishaps of these unlucky people.
Tens of thousands of wounded and maimed young Soviet soldiers returned to the USSR, many with acute symptoms of “Afghan Syndrome.” Any war results in a large group who find it hard to re-adjust to normal life. No one took any responsibility for this either. The memory of those Soviet soldiers, who perished in the mountains of a strange country, lives on basically with their families and in the souls of their brother-soldiers left among the living, who are doomed by an old Russian tradition to always raise the third toast to comrades fallen in war.
From out of the ranks of the “Afghans,” as we called these veterans, came many remarkable leaders, businessmen, teachers, and commanders. General Gromov, who was in charge of the 1989 pull-out of Soviet solders, managed to become governor of Moscow oblast. Alexander Rutskoi, an air-force general, became vice president of Russia, a brilliant representative of the Yeltsin guard, and later on a brilliant opponent of the first Russian president.
But there were also those who brought the battle techniques of the Afghan mountains into the streets of Russian cities. In fact, several Afghan war veterans associations transformed themselves into organized crime groups. What is more, they started to fight amongst themselves—the cause of this being prosaic and not at all praiseworthy, patriotic, or heroic. To veterans’ organizations, the government seemed but a bunch of liars spared from taxation or income tax, or given favorable import duty rates upon various goods and items. There was talk of big money changing hands.
The culmination of the war between certain veterans of the Afghanistan war was a bomb explosion in Moscow’s Kotlyakovski Cemetery, on November 10, 1996, during the internment of the leader of one of the Afghan associations. The blast carried away the lives of many in the funeral procession.
Wars begin in the air-conditioned rooms of mediocre men wearing expensive suits. At the end of the work day they sit in good restaurants, adroitly ply their knives and forks, or chopsticks, and afterwards they go home and kiss their children goodnight. The people who pay for their decisions have nothing to do with power: they are innocent. Thus it has always been, how it is, and will be, everywhere, in every country.
Our friend Lyosha Borozdin changed after the war, and we couldn’t restore the close relations we’d enjoyed before he went into the army. In the end, our paths separated for a long time.
Two days after our return to Moscow from America, that is, approximately ten days after the KPLA interview, I turned on the "tube" early in the morning and saw on the screen a scene from "Swan Lake."
This was extremely suspicious. Had Gorbachev died? Impossible!
Soon an announcer, well-known throughout Russia, appeared and lied without stumbling that Gorbachev was still alive but was gravely ill, most probably mentally ill, because the country was, to put it crudely, in a pigsty mess and a government committee under Vice-President Genadi Yanaev had been set up to remedy the situation.
It was revolting and quite strange, and such an emptiness crept into my soul that I cannot express with words. Imagine the little town of Vidnoye, near Moscow, were I lived in those years in a one-room flat, scarcely four paces from wall to wall. From the window one looked out on a leaden sky, wet asphalt, two or three cars parked by the road. The greyness... I was back just a week from the States. In a child's bed slept my two-year-old son. Was he really fated to live his whole life in a monotonous, sweet and sour world of self-deception, on the cusp between the old and the new?
I set out for work at Gosteleradio, Number 25 Piatnitskaya Street, and caught the shuttle bus in a drizzling rain. Tanks and armored vehicles drove along the curb of the Moscow Ring Road. Chaps in uniforms sat in them, and I don't think they themselves understood what was going on. Their eyes smiled: everything was interesting to them--it was far more pleasant to careen through the beautiful streets of Moscow than slosh around in Russian fields through the eternal mud... My images of America gave way to unhappy thoughts about my and my family's future.
Yuri Sergeevich called me and we met in the square by the Novokuznetskovo metro. I brought an open bag with video tapes recorded off the television from various foreign media outlets; from what they said, the whole affair was nonsense. Pronin looked greyer to me and more drawn. It seemed that at that moment he was experiencing the collapse of all hope for a new and normal life, which should have just been about to happen, albeit at his already rather mature age. Of course, one can now expound about how none of this was serious, how the putsch turned out to be nothing more than a carefully planned action intended either to save the USSR or to finish it off as quickly as possible. But then, at the time, an unpleasant hopelessness came over us. Is this how it was going to end, rather than how it had started out?
The armored vehicles in the yard outside Gosteleradio, the worried face of its head director, the radiant expressions of the lieutenant colonels from the program directorate (actually a branch of the broadcasting censorship bureau): Here is your Gorbachev and your reforms!, they seemed to say. And what about Yeltsin? Where was the Russian parliament? Information was scarce and it was good that we still had CNN, which informed us that "democracy" still lived and those who supported it had gathered around the Russian government building, already christened the White House.
Steve Herst, CNN's Moscow bureau chief, stood on his roof and reported against somber background of the putsch: trucks and soldiers, tanks, bewildered passersby on the New Arbat Bridge across the Moscow River--the rainy tableau of a bygone year. The drama, to which there was no historical analogy, unfolded on TV screens around the world and in real time. Hundreds of millions participated in it simultaneously. The facts Steve shared with viewers were contradictory and smacked of the general bewilderment. A special CNN report, broadcast from the multistory building at the corner of Kutusov Avenue, periodically interrupted with world market updates, which showed a precipitous fall in all indexes. Alexander Gurnov of Russian