Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Night Or Two in Old Russia

From (surprise surprise) Run Like Blazes:


As a star member of the Ecolint Russian class (I’d started studying Russian because of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but didn’t have the courage to admit it in our macho Cold War atmosphere), I went to Russia, on a group trip of course—no other kind was possible in those Soviet days—but soul-stirring nonetheless, since I had the imagination, at least, and the spirit—or maybe just the stupidity—to leave the group behind once we arrived in Moscow. I wandered alone through Red Square at night, with the Kremlin lofting its red stars against the white stars of the apolitical sky. And in then-Leningrad, on the legendary Nevsky Prospekt, I ducked out of the herd again, this time into a subterranean passage where I was propositioned by a beautiful young lady of un-Soviet elegance who (thanks no doubt in large part to Memory’s makeup artists) seems from this forty-year distance to have been a dead ringer for Julie Christie/Lara in Doctor Zhivago—and whom I rebuffed, certain she was a KGB plant (which she may well have been, but still…!), and with whom I’ve journeyed in many a dream-troika across many a snowy dream-waste many a wasted time since.     
       Then there was the train, for in my European life there were always trains, and stations. The trains of my traveler’s past rumble and roll through the empty stations of my dreamer’s nights. I was on the Krasnaya Stryela (Red Arrow) express from Moscow to the city of Peter the Great, then misnamed after the butcher Lenin. We stopped late at night at Tver, then known as Kalinin after a dead apparatchik done in by Stalin. The group was sleeping. Furtively, I got off, unwitnessed by our Intourist guide, whose job it was to make sure we stayed in a herd and followed her about to admire everything she showed us, usually shoe factories and Olympic swimming pools and the like. Unexpectedly, at Kalinin station there were no militia, no commissars, no police, no one at all. There was old snow on the ground, hard, brittle, and gray. It crackled like popcorn underfoot. The air smelled of pine trees and cheap kerosene. A radio somewhere was broadcasting a hectoring voice, from some Party Congress, perhaps, or Soviet soap opera. Bare bulbs glimmered above the station platform. A man in an overcoat emerged from a dimly-lit booth at the platform’s end, carrying a lantern and a wrench. Ignoring me, he trotted down a short flight of steps and hunkered down under the train to check the couplings. In doing so, he made a loud tapping noise with his wrench. The noise echoed in the still air. The only other sounds were the radio and the train’s hydraulic sighs. I was entranced. I was reading Anna Karenina at the time, for God’s sake, and in that merry little epic (as you will no doubt remember, dear well-read reader), Anna K. twice, the second time fatefully, sees just such a railroad man in just such a lonely station, tapping the couplings with his wrench in just such a manner. Of course, the man in the novel assumes a typically Russian symbolic importance as some kind of universal starets or global madman, or uber-serf on a trans-Russian scale, a Mother-Russia father figure incarnate; but in reality, or “reality”—so much of life seems suspiciously staged, all too predictable at one moment and all too predictably unpredictable at others…in reality, he was just a stationmaster doing his dull job. But it was a nice background touch by the Director in charge of all this, whoever He or She is. It accentuated the Russianness of the scene as effectively as would have the sudden appearance of Natasha Rostov and Prince Andrei in a horse-drawn troika. I rejoined my dull and sleepy comrades with elation in my heart.

      So I’ve seen a bit of the real Russia, anyway.

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