SLAVA UKRAINI! GLORY TO UKRAINE! - JUNE 3, 2022
June 3, 2022
A few months after Keith and I settled in Bolshaya Ordynka Street, Jessica, an American student of Russian literature at MGU, the Moscow State University, asked me to go with her to visit her friend, Oleg. Pleasantly surprised at the opportunity to visit a Soviet home, I agreed. Jessica told me that she had met Oleg at a lecture. He was a researcher at a sociological institute and lived in a communal apartment near the Bolshoi Theater, away from his wife and child.
When Jessica confided that Oleg might be cracking under stress, I thought it better not to ask for details. I was afraid that she might withdraw the invitation. However, my curiosity in meeting Oleg only increased. Since I was feeling somewhat isolated both in my marriage and in the fenced compound, the invitation was like a call to freedom.
If American diplomats so desired, they could spend an entire assignment without making contact with the average Soviet. Jessica, however, had lived in Moscow for several months already, and as she was not part of the diplomatic community, was known to have many Russian acquaintances. She was the friend of a friend at the American Embassy and had been to our house for dinner. Without mentioning Oleg's address, I warned Keith of what we were up to. Everything seemed in order.
The invitation to visit Oleg was for lunch at three o'clock in the afternoon. Jessica had told me that Oleg wanted a late lunch so that he could have the communal kitchen mostly to himself. She had made the arrangements face-to-face, for using the telephone might put Oleg or his family in danger. Jessica tested my Russian to make sure that I could handle the conversation.
We met at Prospekt Marx Metro Station near a stand where pirozhki were being sold. The greasy smell of the well-known meat pies filled the air. As soon as we exchanged greetings, Jessica told me to walk fast. As we dashed down the street, she looked back to make sure we were not being tailed. On a nearby wall, a huge red banner screamed, "Transform Moscow into the Model Communist City."
I perspired profusely as we climbed the winding stairs to Oleg's eighth floor. By the time we reached an imposing, dark wood door ravaged by time, I was struggling to catch my breath. Jessica had not wanted to use the elevator—a tenant riding up with us might ask questions. Silently, we reached a landing decorated with tiny gray, white, and brown tiles. At last, Jessica pointed to a scuffed door armored with a long bank of locks.
Oleg opened the door as soon as Jessica tapped. Most probably he had been standing behind it, waiting for us. Without a word, he bowed his head and rushed us through a dark, narrow corridor. People were walking back and forth between apartments and communal areas. A dim ceiling light showed the way. Oleg opened another door with a key, and we entered a stuffy, windowless room. In the middle of that room he pushed aside a curtain suspended by a rope. We entered yet another room.
The vibrant winter sun shone through an old-fashioned bay window. The window dominated the entire tiny space, its panes decorated with antique stained glass. An old lady sat near a table, looking out. I paused to admire the wood-work encircling the windowpanes and the rooftops visible across the street in the afternoon light.
Removing her jacket, Jessica introduced me to Oleg. He looked over thirty-five, undernourished and serious, and wore dingy blue jeans with a heavy sweater that had once been off-white.
"And this is Oleg's mother, Marina Nikolaevna," said Jessica, pointing to the lady by the window.
I stepped over to greet her. She was small and thin, with powerful, piercing, dark eyes. She turned to me with a sharp smile on her lips. Her eyes, however, contradicted the smile. It was as if the eyes were probing me, the smile just a cover up.
"Pleased to meet you, too," I said, thinking she must be fascinated by foreigners.
The room was run down, cluttered. The sunshine high-lighted the dust that covered everything. The wood floors had not been polished in decades. Used books filled a broken bookshelf and overflowed into small piles everywhere. To move, we had to squeeze between miniature towers of oddly shaped volumes. Oleg's interests spanned sociology, literature, international affairs, and foreign languages.
The only orderly place in the room was the table, already set with the zakuski, the tasty hors-d'oeuvres of the Russian cuisine. It was covered by an immaculate white tablecloth, obviously brand new for the occasion. Oleg invited Jessica and me to seat down while Marina Nikolaevna merely turned her chair around. The room was so small that I was at one end of the table squirming for space; a couch that doubled up as a bed pressed against my right leg.
Still standing, Oleg urged his two guests to taste the dainty "little bites." They smelled divine. He addressed us, "Come on, eat, this is why the food is here," he said nervously. "Try the black bread with the beet salad, it's really good." He poured indiscriminately either vodka or Tsinandali, a Georgian white wine, into our glasses.
Marina Nikolaevna did not need prompting to eat. She helped herself to large portions, filling her plate, eating quickly, then filling the plate again. Oleg glanced at her a couple of times, unable to dissuade her with his eyes. Finally he scolded her, "You have to slow down. I cooked for my friends, not for you."
"Why should I?" she replied. "It's not every day that you prepare good food."
To change the subject, Jessica insisted that Oleg sit down, which he did. Turning to me, he said anxiously, "Laura, I'm so sorry that my wife, Yelena, couldn't come for lunch. Jessica is so fond of her. She lives in Yugo-Zapadnaya now, far out, and has to take our son, Kolya, to kindergarten every morning. Then she takes the metro to her office on Prospekt Kalinin. She is quite worn out these days."
"Doesn't she like this apartment?"
"No, it's not that. We can't live together now. We suffer, but there is nothing we can do."
"Before we got married, Yelena lived with her mother and I lived with mine." Oleg ate as he talked and seemed to find it increasingly difficult to swallow his food. "When we married, we asked our mothers to live together in one apartment so that we could have the other. Yelena and I moved into this place, it's closer to her work."
"It goes without saying that Marina Nikolaevna hated to part with her bay window," Jessica said.
Food in her mouth, Marina Nikolaevna answered, "You're right, Jessica, this window is my pride and joy."
"You didn't care for our marriage. If you had, you would have stayed there," Oleg said angrily.
She did not answer and continued to eat instead.
Oleg excused himself and got up. He pushed the curtain to one side and opened the apartment door again. We heard his steps in the narrow corridor. Minutes later he returned carrying the main course: roasted chicken, mushrooms cooked in butter, and yet another assortment of different kinds of sliced white and black bread. As he sat, he insisted again that Jessica and I eat more.
"As I was saying, our mothers didn't get along well," Oleg continued. "My mother hated the new neighborhood. The two women hated each other. They fought all the time."
"What a pity!" I said.
"No, it's not a pity," Marina Nikolaevna said looking me straight in the eyes. "I belong in this apartment, I've lived here all my life."
"You see how she is." Oleg pointed his fork to his mother while he talked to me. "I don't have to explain anything." Grim, he went on, "Half-jokingly Yelena and I thought of killing our mothers; either one or both, a collective murder, so to speak. Instead, we opted to move back in with them. A cooperative apartment here, roughly equivalent to a condominium in the West, costs too much, 5,000 rubles at least."
"You can always try to go abroad," Marina Nikolaevna told Oleg.
"I am surprised you are discussing all this in my presence, after all I'm a foreigner," I said.
"Why? What do we have to lose?" Oleg said. "The paranoia in this country about foreigners is sheer madness." He added, "Besides, Jessica told me that you are a librarian. You might be able to help me with my research project, this is why I told Jessica to invite you."
"What's your research about?" I asked Oleg.
"Let's eat first and I'll tell you later," Oleg replied. I glanced at Marina Nikolaevna eating her chicken. She tore her last piece with her hands and after eating the final tiny bit, she licked her fingers trying to catch all the sauce. She helped herself to some bread, dipping it in the remaining sauce. Then she wiped her mouth clean with a napkin.
Satisfied, Marina Nikolaevna turned her face to the sun and stretched out her fingers to catch the rays coming through the window. At the same time, she glanced leisurely over the adjacent rooftops. Oleg literally ran to the kitchen again and returned carrying strong tea and biscuits. He was pale now, as if from too much work.
Oleg did not rest when we finished eating. He rose once more, this time to take away the empty plates back to the kitchen. Jessica and I tried to help, but Marina Nikolaevna turned to Jessica and stopped her, exclaiming, "What a lovely sweater! Did you knit it yourself?"
Jessica laughed. "Even if I wanted to, I wouldn't have had the time. I'm a student, you know, I'm very busy with my work."
"And your boots, where did you buy them?"
As the two women talked, I followed Oleg, carrying several plates in my hands. Again we passed the curtain, the stuffy room, the gloomy corridor. A waiting line had formed by one of the doors, which remained closed. It was the toilet. Soon we arrived at the apartment's communal kitchen.
Seven rectangular tables stood wedged against the walls with four ovens in between; no cupboards. The floor was covered in light gray linoleum. The high walls were equally gray. Each table had an iron hook on its side holding a few towels. There was one sink with two taps. Seven enormous dented metal basins used for bathing hung along the walls. The smell was suffocating.
Six of the tables were immaculate. The seventh, Oleg's, was covered with pots, pans and cutlery. I went to the nearby table to lay down the plates without thinking. Oleg said, annoyed, "Laura, pile the dishes on my table. Find a spot there. I'm not allowed to use the other tables."
An older man came in as I rearranged things on the cluttered surface. Oleg addressed him politely, almost deferentially, "I'll be doing the dishes soon, don't worry." The man nodded, looked around while pacing up and down and then decided to leave.
"Who's that?" I asked.
"The head of our collective, a party representative. He supervises the common areas: the kitchen, the corridor, the bathroom, the separate toilet. He doesn't like dishes lying around; he wants them done as soon as possible. We have to be careful to avoid fights here."
Oleg washed the dishes. "I want your opinion about our research project; I'm studying the sociology of sports at the moment," he said. "In our country we have major Olympic athletes, children who begin training early because the parents have party credentials. But the vast majority of our adolescents don't practice any sport, they're uninterested. My research team is working on a questionnaire to figure out ways to increase high school students' motivation. We know the relationship between physical activity and mental health. But we don't really know if it affects boys and girls differently."
"This is a fairly easy problem to deal with," I replied. "Have you gone to your library to research information on authors from other countries who have written on this subject?"
"I can only look up the information from Eastern European countries. The other stacks are closed to me."
"But it's still true. With my low rank at the institute, I've limited access to data. It's very frustrating. This is why I need to talk to foreigners, to know what's going on."
"I was never interested in either sports or health; I don't know a lot about those subjects." As I finished the phrase, I feared I had frustrated Oleg further.
After piling the leftovers on one plate, I washed my hands at the second tap in the sink, then I grabbed a nearby towel. Oleg stopped me again, but this time he was rather upset. Maybe I had, indeed, disappointed him with my answer.
"Listen, I already told you that you can use only my things. Get that towel over there," he said, pointing with soapy fingers.
"How thoughtless of me! I forgot," I answered, starting to dry the dishes. "Your attitude towards foreigners is different from that of all the others I've met here. Tell me something. Why all the big secrecy about meeting foreigners?"
"People at the top, the party, fear the influence from abroad. I've already been visited by the KGB several times. I'm being watched, but I couldn't care less. It might seem suicidal, but I don't give a damn. My life is not that good, anyway. What can I lose? My share of this apartment? My stupid job?"
Almost instinctively, Oleg approached a small window near the sink. Hiding himself near the wall, he leaned forward and stared at the street below. I assumed that he was searching for a KGB agent standing opposite the building's main entrance; someone might have followed Jessica and me into the apartment.
"Even if you don't care, aren't you afraid of these people?" I asked.
"I run a constant risk, but I try to cover myself. I told my boss that I was meeting you, that I wanted to discuss our project."
"I'm terribly sorry that, as a librarian, I know mostly how to search sources. That's what my work at the Georgetown Public Library in Washington entailed." I wished Oleg were researching, for instance, socio-cultural differences between developed and underdeveloped countries, I had some UNESCO books on that topic at home.
I paused and then asked out of curiosity, "What did your boss say about our meeting?"
"He told me to make a note in our daily register that I was going out to cover a story for our newspaper. Now, with Andropov in power, we record our entering and exit hours at all times. We post new information on our walls regularly and need to leave the institute to run errands once in a while."
"My boss is a good fellow; he tries to help me. He sees how depressed I am these days."
Oleg looked at the dish he was washing and paused, "But he's a member of the old school. His work is old-fashioned, ineffective, useless. He doesn't keep up with what's going on outside the country."
"It must be stifling."
"It's killing me. I can't think independently. I was different before; now I feel amorphous, aimless. Above all, I need to please my boss. To survive at the institute I need to agree constantly, to become invisible, to fly low, very low."
Jessica came in. She looked at Oleg. "Sorry for leaving you alone. First, I had to answer all your mother's questions about my clothes. Then, she inquired about the U.S., my family, my parents' house. She is such a curious lady. Then, she had a plan. You divorce Yelena, marry me, and we settle in the U.S. What an imagination she has! After that, I stood in line to use the toilet for over seven minutes."
As she talked, Jessica took a towel from the hook near Oleg's table to help with the dishes.
"Did my mother really say that?" Oleg asked in disbelief. "Did she say that she wanted me to divorce Yelena? Are you sure?"
"Yes. But, maybe, she was kidding, I don't know."
Oleg's eyes reddened, his face flushed. He continued with the dishes, but his anxiety returned. Suddenly he broke a glass in the sink, maybe on purpose. We helped him clean up the mess. When we finished, we realized Oleg had cut his right thumb. "I must hurry up now," he muttered. "With cooking, I've already been out for more than two hours."
We finished up the dishes without speaking any more. Jessica made two piles of plates and placed the pots, glasses, and cutlery on a tray. The three of us carried everything back to Oleg's rooms.
As we came in, Oleg placed his pile on the table and went straight to his mother. She was doing her nails while sitting in the chair by the bay window, the sunshine still pouring over her. From behind, he clamped his hands around her wrinkled neck. "You know, instead of killing myself, or letting them get me, I might kill you," he said. "I might even throw you out of your bay window. What I can't figure out is why you provoke me to deal with you sooner rather than later."
The old lady did not utter a sound. With bulging eyes, she looked imploringly at Jessica while struggling to remove Oleg's hands. But Oleg would not let go. The muscles of his hands were shaking, his teeth clenched. I could see red marks growing round Marina Nikolaevna's neck, close to her son's hands. Blood from his thumb spurted over the collar of her dress. I wished again I could have helped Oleg with his research project. He was delirious with rage, and maybe he felt that he had cooked all that food for nothing. And his mother had eaten most of it.
At that moment Jessica screamed, incredulous to be a witness in such a scene. She rushed to Oleg and beat him boldly on the back. Surprised by her strength, Oleg bent forward and let go of his mother. Straightening himself, he then addressed Jessica and me, shouting in a wild, hollow-sounding voice, "Come on, let's go. I'm already late."
We sped down the stairs, and Oleg disappeared quickly into the street. As we approached Prospket Marx Metro Station and I looked at the red communist banner again, the one about Moscow becoming the ideal city, I said to Jessica, "I'm afraid it's going to take time, in fact, quite some time, before Moscow becomes a 'model city' worth remembering."
Jessica heard me, but she remained silent, still too stunned to speak.