“It is very difficult for a person brought up in the Western world to understand what life was like in the Soviet Union during the Communist regime and immediately after its collapse. Professor Kokarev’s book explains and illustrates this life on the basis of his own experience. This is of great value especially now that Communist rule begins to fade from memory.”
Richard Pipes, Baird Professor of Russian History, Emeritus, Harvard University.
Table of contents
Part one. Before Perestroika… For Socialism with Human Face
1.Khrushchev’s Thaw in Odessa: Flavour of Freedom………….…7
2.Sorry, Dad, I am not a Sailor…………………………..….………………33
3. Karatau, My country, What Can I Do for You? …………..…….…46
4.Moscow, Film School (VGIK),…………………………………………….….55
5.My Family: Love and Fame……..……………….…………………….….…67
6.Academy of Social Science: Brain Washing Machine……………105
7.US & Canada Studies: Yankee in King Arthur’s Court….………124
8.SOS! “We are dying from suffocation!”………………………………..143
Part Two. Perestroika. Fight for Democracy
1.Filmmakers Union: Territory of Freedom………………..……………154
2.Free Elections: Helpless and Greedy.……….…………..……………167
3.Public Diplomacy: Moscow-Miami Dialogue…………………………..212
4.First Steps in the World of Charity………………………..……………231
5.Trapped in the USA: Looking for My Way…………..…..…………..251
6.Never Say Never: I Found My Way……………..…….…..……………..274
Part three. After Perestroika. Building the Civic Society
1. First Community Centre in Moscow.…..………………………………..289
2.Thunderbird University: Nonprofit Management Courses………312
3.USAID: The CD Partnership Project………………..…….……………..332
4.Ford Foundation / Ch.S.Mott Foundation: CD Grants….………357
5.SK-NEWS: the Editor in Chief………..……….…………..………………383
6.Over Fly America: Diary behind the Wheel…..….………………….397
7.Russian Government: Love and Betrayal…….…………..……………439
CONCLUSION. Foreign Agent……. …….…………….…………………464
Who are those «foreign agents»? Here we are, responsible citizens. It was Putin who called us the “fifth column” and “foreign agents” since we have been supported by the West in our efforts to build a new democratic Russia. We failed. He won. We have been exiled. He remains in the Kremlin. But this is not the end of the story. The battle for freedom continues.
This book is only one of numerous stories about how the U.S. and the West invested in building democracy in post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin’s and Putin’s rule. It’s about how it started, who we were and where we came from — the liberal-leaning citizens who had chosen a career in not-for-profit instead of business and politics; about what sort of obstacles and problems we met on our way, how we were trying to push the new “democratic” governments on all levels toward developing public policy and partnership with the emerging civic society.
My path was not straight. I was not guided or pressured by any political party or foreign advisors. It was a time full of false starts and mistakes in attempting to serve my country, until I met destiny in the form of my dear American friends who introduced me to the concept of the American tradition of grassroots democracy and community organising. They introduced me and said: we took it for granted and now we give it to you.
It was an exciting moment, when I realised that the success of Russia’s democratic reforms was dependent on not only new political institutions and the “wisdom of a free market”, but also on the preparedness of millions of Russian citizens, their sense of personal dignity, their skills at self organising and their readiness to use their social networks and social capital in local and national politics. Almost fifteen years of implementing this knowledge, obtained in the U.S,. convinced me of the ability and desire of ordinary Russians to make a difference in their country, as they easily learned and absorbed liberal European values and freedoms. The only obstacle on this path was and remains still the Russian administration and government, over which the Russian people never quite managed to take control..
This book covers almost fifty years of one individual’s active life before Perestroika and after. It follows the personal transformation of a strong believer in Communism’s shining future during the Khrushchev Thaw of the 1960’s to a politically correct but risk-taking dissident of decaying socialism in the 70’s and 80’s; and in post-Soviet Russia, the transformation of a liberal, enthusiastically building civic society in the 90’s, to a “foreign agent” and “fifth column” by 2010’s. The memoire genre allows me to give a broad picture of Moscow intellectual and cultural life during the thirty years I worked as a film critic and sociologist and lived there rubbing elbows with many legendary artists and filmmakers, musicians and actors as a member of the family of the famous Soviet composer and First Secretary of Composer’s Union Tikhon Khrennikov. Nino Rotta, Maria Kallas, Nikolay Giaurov, Mstislav Rostropovich, Evgeniy Svetlanov, Aram Khachaturian, Maja Plisetskaya and others were guests in his hospitable home…
The Academy of Social Science of Communist Party Central Committee, where I got my Ph.D. in sociology, allowed me to travel all over the Soviet Union and conduct in sociological research in the field, studying the lifestyle and values of both ordinary Soviet people and the party elite during the period of late socialism and its stagnation. This experience is also reflected in this book.
My discovery of America happened late, when I was 33 and working in the U.S. and Canada Studies Institute as a senior research fellow. Like most Soviet citizens, not being allowed to travel abroad, I studied America through books and films. I even wrote books about American life as reflected in the mirror of Hollywood movies of the turbulent 60’s and conservative 70’s. In the company of my circle of colleagues — former diplomats, international journalists, scholars and Politburo advisers and speechwriters—I then met Perestroika.
As an active member of the Filmmakers Union and personal advisor to its First Secretary Elem Klimov, and then as Chief Editor of the Union’s trade paper “SK-News”, I also took part in reforms to the Soviet film industry, closely communicating and cooperating with Elem Klimov, Kirill Razlogov, Daniel Dondurey, Rustam Ibragimbecov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Menshov, Eldar Riazanov and others, who were symbols of Soviet classic film art. I also took part in the first post-Soviet, free elections in 1989. My experience serving as a people’s deputy in Moscow also finds its place in this book.
Almost 15 years of intensive dissemination and implementation of Western, especially American, patterns of community organising, along with the skills and tools of grassroots democracy, in the poor deteriorating neighbourhoods and districts of different cities in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, gave me unique material for understanding the peculiarities, problems and obstacles on the difficult path to modernisation of the former Soviet Empire. It revealed the negative attitude of the political elite to any neighborhood organising activity including housing movements. These relationships of the citizenry and government were far from social partnerships and were almost always hostile and loaded with suspicion and hatred. My experience proved the hypothesis that there was no special Western or American pattern, tool and skill of direct democracy organising that could not be adapted in Russia. The only important part that was — and still is — missing in this process of modernisation is the political will and willingness of local and central power to collaborate. That is what this book is about as well.
The Eurasia Foundation supported the first steps of a small community centre «Neopalimovka», one mile away from the Kremlin. This was followed by receiving the first “Community Development Partnership Project” sponsored by USAID. In post-Soviet Russia we started working in poor neighbourhoods in Moscow long before the Federal Law on Local Self-government separated municipalities from the central government. Then followed two more grants from USAID, then three grants from the Ford Foundation and two more grants from Ch.S.Mott Foundation.. Our national training centre for community organisers grew and eventually certified more then three thousand graduates — activists, leaders and trainers— from all over Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan during the 12 years of its activity. Not a penny did we get from the Russian government or any Russian foundation during those years, and not because we didn’t need it. But, regardless, we managed to print lots of handouts and brochures and later we published books and handbooks about community and housing development. Due to these efforts, the new profession of community organiser became known in post-Soviet Russia.
Not everyone had the opportunity to participate in building civil society in post-Soviet Russia. I was lucky, and the unfinished experience of crossing the Russian-Soviet etatism with the American-European «grass roots» democracy and local communities culture should not be the lost. Russia will wake up from unconsciousness, and recall us, the pioneers who were trying to build a civil society. We tripped shoulder under Russian democracy from above. We were down there, where beneath the smoldering ashes of Russian zemstvo (local self-government before 1917) buried by the Bolsheviks and their heirs we did our best to animate our national traditions of self-government and self-organising.
There were very few of us for such a huge country — citizens who were trying to awake a muzzled public consciousness and to build a strong and active civil society as an equal partner to the power and organised business. In a country where private interest was crushed by the state for more than a century, it was the most important task on the way to democracy. Without denying the state, we sought its desacralisation and decentralisation preparing the scene for an historic collaboration of civil society as organized citizens with the government. And today, as the country has dropped back into a viscous slime of imperial nationalism, we remain committed to human rights, the rule of law, separation of powers, free media, independent court and civil society. These key tenets are the future of Russia.
My deep appreciation and thanks to my American advisors and good friends Robin Whitely, David Chavis, Gillian Key, Dan Karen, Tom Cruise, Robert Duval and many others who led me through the most challenging, happy, and fruitful years of my life. My gratitude to the US Agency for International Development, Ford Foundation, Eurasia Foundation, Ch.S.Mott Foundation who helped me to do what I thought was necessary for my country. To my colleagues and associates, to all good people, with whom I spent the best part of my life dedicated to the unfinished modernisation of Russia. I want to say thank you, thank you all.
Part I. Before … For socialism with a human face
Odessa on the threshold of the 60s: the children of the Khrushchev thaw.
Yes, the city that has been labeled by us,
And the smell of the old holding yard …
And it only gets stronger with the years
And draws us to talk …
What am I going to leave to my children? Not money, I never had them. Life experience, if you understand what I mean. Sometimes knowledge might be more valuable than money. Anyway a faith and values rule the world.
It happened I was born in Odessa. It means a lot to those who ever been in this legendary city. My parents and I returned home from evacuation in Vladivostok in the spring of 1945. German bomb half ruined the building, only two blocks away from famous Opera theatre. Stolyarsky Music School was also one block away by other side. We, the kids, knew very well the hidden passage to the underground catacombs over there, where the Soviet guerrillas — Odessa resistance — sheltered for years. We played with weaponry there, my broken finger left as memory of these war games.
A slice of brawn bread and a cup of tea in the morning and a piece of Black Sea seen from the window — what else did I need to be happy? We had no refrigerators, no TV, no phones, no computers. Life was very simple. But we lived in the country that just defeated fascism. As a boy I was proud to be born in the USSR, not in the decaying America where blacks hung on the trees only because they were black. «Two worlds — two childhoods», maybe someone remembers this poster?
In Odessa we had it, the Sea. Clean, greenish in mussels overgrown fragments of rocks. The sea and the books. I keep it still, half-rotted notebook, written day by day 60 years ago. Neat handwriting records of every book I’ve read while sitting at the table, walking on the streets, laying under the blanket in my bed. My personal must read, prepared for me by my mom and my teachers. I lived in this magic world all years of my post war childhood, the books and the sea. In summer sunny morning two friends run to Langeron beach, flew into the sea and easily floated couple of miles along the wild, overgrown dry steppe, then throw their tanned bodies on the hot sand in Arcadia beach and slept under the scorching sun. Dark skin as dry snags. To wake up, to grab four twenty-cent piroshkis, to drink a soda for a penny and back home. This time swimming lazily, not in a hurry, getting out of the water for a while to taste the fish soup from a war-time soldiers’ pot with fishermen in Otrada beach. The salad bowl with steppe tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, potatoes all in vegetable oil already waiting for me on the table at home. Thank you, mom! To fill up a hungry belly and rush to a city square at Deribasovskaya street. There’s concert of the Moscow Stars at the summer stage. Jump over the fence and sit on still warm asphalt in front of the first row. Sing, Ruzhena Sikora, we’re here. Happy, always hungry Soviet children of the fifties, the building material for communism all over the world …
When Stalin died, I stood with my hand up in Pioneer salute. Cars at the streets were honking, factories were whistling. Tears flowed down my mother’s cheeks. We panicked, expecting the end of the world. I was stunned next day when I saw how my schoolmate Juri Brovkin carelessly teared apart the portrait in the textbook. We were thirteen, we were friends. Till this day.
I remember: autumn slush, old lady heavy lags with shopping bags in both hands. A heavy canister of milk. I see how the cover of the canister, inadvertently discarded hollow coat passer right under her feet, in a sucking mud. The old lady stopped helplessly. I raise the cover, wipe it with my sleeve, dried with white shirt and returned it on the canister. The old lady with tears in her eyes was looking at my clumsy efforts. It burned me. What was it? «The arrow of good pierced his heart.» The phrase from a book.
Yes, we were a book generation knowing nothing about real life. “As the Steel Was Tempered” about blood and tears of October Revolution and Civil War, «Timur and His Team” about romanticism of 20’s, «People with a Clean Conscience” about Soviet guerrillas in the enemy rear, “Spartacus» about rebells in the ancient Roma, “Tom Sawyer”, Jack London, Mayakovsky poetry… The elevated feelings, the images of beloved book heroes mixed with experience of everyday life coexisted in some mysterious configurations in our heads, baking different boys and girls. May be my former friend Yuri Brovkin knew something I had no idea about. Silence was golden.
Mother meant for me the mother and father in the same time. In the city of sailors it was not uncommon. She controlled my readings and checked regularly my classroom diary. For some unknown reason she became furious seeing Yesenin poetry on my table. She threw it in the garbage, yelling on me:
“Even don’t dare to look at these decadent verses!”
“Are you thinking about a suicide?”
What a strange suspicion! She protected us from something, from some unspoken danger known only to her. She never shared with us, the kids, her past. So I had no idea about the Terrible Hunger of the 30’s, about the surplus-appropriation system, about the horrors of the trials in the 30’s until I grew up. Neither she nor the father never — loud or in whisper — mentioned the past. I was 16 when Khruschev’s Thaw opened our eyes a little.
Mom dedicated her life to her children. She saved me and my elder sister during the War and after when our dad was sailing abroad for years. She spun around the house — to dress, put on shoes, to wash, to feed, to have normal friends, and all with a constant cigarette in her mouth. As I remember, she always smoked since the War times — a pack and a half a day.
“I’ll twist you in a ram’s horn, but will make you happy!” She repeated, carefully concealing her concerns unknown to me. May be it was a fear? But to be afraid of what?
She was responsible for us in front of dad. She quit her study in medicine, pulled me and elder sister from the burning Odessa in 1941 across the country to the Far East, Vladivostok. Dad carried lend-lease loads from Liverpool to Murmansk on ships till 1943. These caravans of ships were attacked by Germans and only a few usually reached the port of destination. He was seriously wounded, survived in the hospital, and reunited with the family in Vladivostok only in 1944. All his life he was grateful to my mother for keeping us, the children, alive during these unbelievable, unthinkably difficult and cruel times. She protected us even now, in the 50’s. Mom passed away early, at the age of 66 of a heart attack. I then fell on the coffin, sobbing belatedly, refusing to let her go.
My dad influenced me by the very fact of his existence. He was loved and respected by all who worked with him. A marine engineer, acknowledged specialist in the Black See Steamship Company, he was a pattern for me. He was devoted to his job, kept in order the engine room, his cabin was also very orderly. Job was his priority. Like school was for me. I was carrying this trait in my soul, unconsciously of course. I liked to be involved in everything there, and bullies brothers Lysenko whom I helped with math and literature were my best friends. Time will come, and one of the brothers, Michael, will participate in storming the palace of Amin in Afghanistan as one of the elite KGB troopers. He will die of the wounds at the incomplete 50 years of age. His aged classmates will come to say goodbye.
With my sidekick, Yuri Markov, we were preparing for the final high school exams sitting on the balcony on fifth floor. A blue strip of the sea and the military harbour were seen from the overgrown vines leaves. Instead of peering in the books we were dreaming about the future, arguing about meaning of life, of humanity. Our vision of the world without weapons and wars was undisputable. We imagined ourselves as a small but important part of a gigantic machine rushing to communism. And this process increasingly captured me, I saw a bright future as my own goal.
Time to chose the specialty and career came on the heels. Our lives depended on this choice. To be or not to be… How one can avoid mistakes? The ruthless truth: if you didn’t find your own way, you lost a life. You might even not notice how you already lost it … Why our teachers at school didn’t teach us? The ability to select early you destination is a sign of talent. And something more like the strength of character, your will and determination. Voice calling — is a great power. Lucky are those who were gifted enough to hear this inner voice. Boys and girls, we knew nothing about ourselves as well as about the vagaries of adult life, full of compromises and challenges.
Another friend of mine, Igor Kirichenko, already knew he would be a chemist, and it was his luck. He will work as a tenure professor of Odessa University, then teach in Algeria University, then returned to continue teaching. He will live peacefully in Odessa of the rest of his life. His chair will be inherited by his daughter Anna, also a chemist. He will be proud of his handsome and successful grandson Bogdan. One day his University will grant him with an apartment in a luxury condo at the sea shore. He will miss the opportunity to enjoy life in the new apartment. One other sultry summer, Igor will enter the same wavelength as that of 70 years ago, and die of a heart attack in minutes… What a wonderful life.
In the days of our youth, Odessa was a Russian city with a Jewish-Ukrainian accent. Freeport in some spiritual sense, that what it was. Ordinary people communicated with satirical phrases and expressions from «The Twelve Chairs» by Ilff and Petrov, although published years ago the book wasn’t officially available. Its harsh bitter humour, the character of Ostap Bender, a cheerful crook who embodied the adventurous years of NEP — New Economic Policy of twenties were relevant to the nature of our South Odessa spirit. The tradition was continued by ironic sketches of Michael Zhvanetsky, Odessa-born new talent. Michael saw the reality through the eyes of a jewish intellectual, whose humble wisdom cured our souls.
Word as such was of great importance for the Odessits. They played with the words, they loudly quarrel using elegant expressions, they reveled by them, they indulged with it like with the sun on hot beaches. Living meant first of all to find the proper word for which worth the risk. I realised early that what you saw, felt but not articulated, sooner or later will dissolve without a trace. In other words to remember meant to understand. To understand meant to find the right words. So I was hunting for the right words…
. . . I remember terrible texts in my hands — wrinkled, jammed page diary of recently rehabilitated political prisoner, a friend of my father. They were written «out there», and secretly snatched. At our little dacha near the beach of Big Fountain in front of me sat rugged not wrinkled, not the scarred but broken man and feebly told the unthinkable. In the 37th he held a high post of chairman of Baskomflot, Seamen’s Union. He was summoned to Moscow and taken directly to Beria’s office. And after friendly hugs with Red Commissar he was professionally beaten at the spot.
I was shocked. Just asked him:
“Don’t want to take revenge on your tormentors?”
He looked at me with sad, dead eyes:
“Revenge? Young man, I have only strength to breathe.”
Then I did not understand it. The cult of personality was already exposed, the innocent prisoners were rehabilitated and returned home. How can they let the torturers go unpunished, why did not repent? And the executioners, the guard, the snitches … They were hiding and cling to the old, looking in it as an excuse for their crime. Or it wasn’t a crime at all? That was my question to the victims. I asked my father’s friend:
“So did you forgive them?”
“No not like this. I knew that once it was planned so, it meant that it was necessary for the party. And where to die for the cause of communism, in a battle or in the camp, it didn’t matter for us. I meant, it was necessary to be there.”
In this crippled logic, uncomplaining sacrifice was something dark, transcendent, inhuman. To die in the battle for the fatherland? It’s OK. It was bitter, but it was a feat. To die for no reason? Be ready to accept the arrest, torture, and prison camp just because it was “necessary” to the party? And nobody asked why? No one dug up the answer? Even this remarkable classic: «Revolution devours its children» — was not an answer!
My generation was already different. We were not trembling with fear at nights. But the answer to the question why it was necessary was not found yet. Probably we didn’t know much by the time. The bolsheviks were fanatically cruel while building their New World, but we were already born in it, taking this reality for granted without questions. This life was the only pattern we knew, the norm. I saw my father, a sailor who all his lifetime was ironing seas and oceans as a good example. The Party sent him to Dubossary in Moldova steppe to repair harvesters. And he obeyed without complains. He proudly accepted this Party assignment with all his heart. Of course, it was not like the concentration camp. I spent summer vacation there with him and we were happy. Later he was awarded by the Order of Red Banner of Labor.
And what about myself? In a few years at the call of the Komsomol I will drop my sailing and rush to the Komsomol chemical plant construction in Kazakh steppe. Voluntarily! With enthusiasm! “Idiot!” — that was the conclusion of my ship mates.
“Romantic youth of 60’s” — as all newspapers called us.
Probably war volunteers of 1941 would understand me. However, they did not return from the battlefield. Fortunately I’ll be back …
«The Philosophy of History,» Hegel — a must read book. Hard reading I have to confess. The formula «Freedom as a perceived necessity» gleaned from there seemed provocative and not humanistic. It leaded exactly there — to the tortured old man, who have accepted the torture and the camp as a perceived need, not discussed party decision. No way!!! Freedom meant something else for me, more responsibility and meaningfulness.
From Hegel also came the understanding of history as an irreversible progress, development — forward and up. What’s after us, would be always better. Technical progress was a good example. The fact that human history turns, and comes to a standstill, wandering in the dark, turn back the clock and can even go to self-destruction, I will learn later.
Meanwhile the soul was awaiting for a challenge. Where to apply the fountaining energy? What should be my mission on this earth? Ogarev and Herzen once on the Sparrow Hills hundred years ago took an oath «to sacrifice their life in the struggle we have chosen…» A gentle touch of the history derived from the books formed a semi-conscious thirst of feats. In my mind clearly enough grew confidence that private values, family, personal well-being and comfort will be not worth to spend on the whole life.
I didn’t know that this attitude was already expressed in the seventeenth century by English poet and preacher John Donne. But we all knew Heminguey’s book «For Whom the Bell Tolls”. I’ll find the whole piece in the quotation from John Donne much later:
«Man is not an island, not just in itself; everyone is part of the continent, a part of the whole; if the sea washes away even a lump of earth, that Europe is becoming smaller, as if a promontory were washed away or the house of your friends, or your own home. Each man’s death reduces me, because I — part of humanity; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee».
The great proletarian writer Maksim Gorkiy perhaps best expressed the fledgling state of my mind and restless spirit:
«Over the gray plain of the sea breeze clouds gather. Between the clouds and the sea proudly fluttering Petrel, like black lightning. That wing touching the waves, then an arrow soaring into the clouds, he cries, and — the clouds hear the joy in bold cry of a bird. In that cry — the thirst of the storm! The force of anger, passion flames and confident of victory hear the clouds in that cry. »
That is the future! There, in a storm!
But life made its own corrections soon. Next year schools for boys and schools for girls were unified and this sudden close encounters with casual touch, girly scent turned my world. Suddenly I felt ashamed to walk in the streets. For some reason the glance itself followed the beautiful legs, run under a skirt. And I couldn’t resist this bewitchment. Reading or dancing — every Saturday’s dilemma. A battle of the spirit with the flesh.
My father saved the poor boy. Whether he realised my hidden struggle? I did not know. But he took me to his friend, a coach in school of gymnastics, and it was the right educational decision. Not my choice, but the right one. Sport not only diverted attention from the game of hormones, not only strengthen the muscles, but also gave a new sense of life for the future. Inexpressible feeling of superiority over the thick, clumsy humanity. Three times a week in the gym that near the Potemkin Stairs, giant circles on high bar with the layout summersault dismount was a great charge. Accustomed to work the body will be able to make a double somersault or putting the hands in the rings to bring the body up into L-position, and press into a hand stand fifty years later. Thank you, dad!
After training — two glasses of tomato juice and rondat-flick-somersault right over Pushkin street in front of dumbfounded policeman. We, the team, didn’t walk. Practically we were flying defying gravity. Alexander Lapshin, Zorik Kinolik, Fred Voskoboynikov — Odessa team in gymnastics were really strong guys. Each one of us chose different ways down the road, but we’ll meet in Moscow, Odessa, in America from time to time, remaining good friends.
Girls looked into the gym window, whispering, giggling. Who knows how it might have ended if not the famous and beautiful Lara Zayakina who had been exercising on the parallel bars in the same gym. That first love, platonic and poetic, owed its reverent attitude towards women. I realised that the presence of women made life beautiful, declared their superiority and our dependency, which was more valuable than a proud loneliness.
The boys were rulers of the beaches and Odessa streets. We climbed up the lampposts to reach the Opera’s balcony to watch the ballet, we exchanged jokes with vendors at famous Privoz market, grabbing a gigantic samples of something testy. We condescendingly teased stupid tourists littered with their meaty white bodies our beautiful beaches. Gymnasts and acrobats, we would clear the spot on the sand to show in front of these fatty seals such tricks that current muscular mulatto on the Promenade in Santa Monica seem to me greenhorns. While the audience open-mouthed staring at our flips and racks, pickpockets quietly doing their job lightly passes nimble fingers on the folded clothes in heaps. They did not share their trophies with us. We didn’t care, we just stretched our muscles.
Puppy’s joy of life, a childhood full of wonderful expectations. I loved my Odessa, its streets and beaches, the borderless port with its gantry cranes and ships, warehouses and piers observable from Primorsky Boulevard. We, all classmates were a good company, easy going gang ready for good and for bad like sceaping the dull classes of chemistry or geography. Mila Farber would feed me, always hungry, with sandwiches made by her mother. When I was sick Olenka Aleksandrovich appeared at my apartment with chicken broth to safe poor boy. I loved them all, Russians, Jewish, Ukrainians. It was real brotherhood.
Though something was telling me, that I wouldn’t stay in Odessa all my life. Enchanted future opens somewhere just beyond the threshold of the father’s house. I dreamed about new horizons like Moscow State University, Moscow Institute of International Relations. Stupid enough. My parents were more realistic:
“Get a real profession first! Then dream as much as you want! And frankly, do you really want to be jailed for something said or written? Don’t you know that our next door neighbour got five years for simple anecdote recently?”
I didn’t care. Who can stop the dreams? It was amazing how careless we were! Surfing the catacombs, collecting scrap metal and old newspapers, joking in wall newspaper, skipping some boring classes… for what, should I ask, in prison? Somewhere above our heads the Party was proclaiming five-year plans, reducing the prices on food and goods, exploring outer space and supporting anti colonial movements in the countries of the Third World. That was real life!
Forget your dreams, go to Odessa Higher Marine Institute! Father’s name — your password. Before exams the teacher gave a test: he called students to the blackboard and dictated words. Prior to the first error. Seven flew after 2-3 words. The word list was drained, but I was still there. I’ve got a perfect pitch to literacy. And everyone saw: not a man on board … So I betrayed myself making an easy but wrong choice. Life does not forgive cheating. If I had known it before …
When I became a student I opened my heart to my love. I talked to her on board of white cruiser «Ukraine». Deep night, the whistling wind and the sound of steel cut waves accompanied my words. «Pearl of your virginity is hidden in the shell of my soul. They ask where you live, but they seem not to know that your home is in my heart.» I quoted from my favourite “Diplomat” by Aldridge, not knowing that at that very moment she had already made her choice. With shy and humble Sanya, her fellow student who became a chief electrician engineer on the ships of foreign trips they would live in piece happy fifty years. In already independent Ukraine she will by dying for a long months, gradually losing ability to move, then to talk. When the first blood of hybrid war with Russia shed Odessa in 2014, and the former Party Committee building will be burned by Molotov cocktails, she pass away. Her faithful Sasha will send me to Los Angeles a short message: «Today has died Laronka» … Terminated another thread with the romantic youth.
In the High Marine Institute all students got their funny nicknames: Merzavchik, Corner, Chilon, Kangaroo, Muscled. Old GULAG tradition. I had a strange one: Socialist-idealist. White crow amid old salts. I really envied Chilon, the country boy, who had not seen the engine prior to the Institute, but he in his head could take these damned derivatives and integrals! Easily! In the same time he didn’t comprehend my “deep thoughts” about mankind. He would better get along with machines than with people. Once chatting as usual before getting asleep he tossed me a reproach:
“Stop reading utopians and fooling people. Do you have your own thoughts?”
“Wait”. I waved helplessly. “All ahead.”
And what that “all ahead” meant I did not know myself.
During classes I read «The Amount of Technology» by Stanislaw Lem under the desk and pestered the teacher of political economy with irritating questions:
“Will the surplus value theory work when robots replace human labor?”
Professor hated me, I knew that…
But summer usually magically changed everything. The summer practice on the luxury passengers ships cruising along the Crimean-Caucasian shore was splendid. At nights the deck swings from dancing, daytime I was hanging around in Yalta, Sochi, Batumi. Beauty of the Crimea and the Caucasus for free for the practising students. I already knew this coast like the back of my hand. The fellow team stood alongside watching new passengers walking up the stairs to the landing. It’s easy to get acquainted on board, no way to escape. Tatiana Poznyakova, beautiful young ballerina from the Kirov Theatre, now living in a small town near New York, likes to reminiscent how fifty years ago she walked with cadet-trainee on Sochi streets eating cream cheese and reciting poetry to each other.
We rolled on our ship the foreigners as well. But in this case the surveillance was much more strict. Long stooped uncle Fyodor did not take his rotten eyes off those of us who spoke English and was apt to practice it. I spoke English. And liked to chat with a pair of nice young Americans. We talked about life here and there. They constantly asked, pointing to a floating away Vorontsov Palace:
“Don’t you want to own such a beauty?”
I answered quite frankly:
“This is a trade union resort. Each of us can spend 24 days in this palace or another for free every year. Do you see how many of them on this shore?”
“You said you have 24 days vacation a year?”
They were surprised and kept asking again and again:
“What about a car? Would you like to have one? Or two?”
The very idea of MY car at the time was so unreal, that even deeply in my mind I could’t find a trace of such a desire. And I responded.
“To have a car means to maintain it, to have a garage, to repair it, to wash it. It might be stolen after all… So much trouble! We have a good public transportation for only a few cents.”
“OK. We’ve heard that they send you to work in Siberia, in Asia. To Kazakhstan? Is it called something like virgin lands?”
Just like in response over our «Latvia» was heard favourite song of romantic of the 60’s: «Komsomol volunteers … you have to believe, to love selflessly … the only way to find happiness!”
How could I convey to those Americans who understood neither these words nor exalted spirit and enthusiasm of those of us, going to fight, to die for Motherland with happy burning eyes? Well, what palaces, what cars, what are you talking about, guys? We have a Homeland. We love it. Have you read «How the Steel Was Tempered»? No? That’s it. We are all Pavel Korchagin. Well, not all. And not always. But still…
It seems these old fellows understood something. They exchanged glances and Diana said pitifully, more to herself:
“Yes, probably, they are happy. They have a Homeland. We also do. And we love it too. But his country needs him. And ours does not. We belong only to ourselves. Do whatever you want. Freedom. And what is the freedom for if it is of no use to anyone? There’s something in it, Jim.”
I felt proud and happy. They acknowledged it! Good to be born in the USSR! If not that rotten glance from behind the corner …
There was the Dyukovsky Park near by our campus at Moldavanka area. The park had a pool. In winter when the pool freezes, someone made the hole in the ice. In the morning, after yoga exercises I run to dive in this hole and swim under the ice. And came up from other hole at the opposite side of the pool. The cold was so intense that steam seemed to come strait from my very skin. Inexpressible muscular joy came from me like a young healthy puppy.
On Saturdays we all went to dance. After the train arrived at the last stop at Tiraspol square, all students headed to the diner at the street corner. There we got a glass of vodka for a ruble, then the second shot immediately. Then just hail the flavour of the rye bread with herring tail. That was go-o-od… Ready to dance with Odessa girls in the sports hall of building Buky of our college. There my fellow classmates usually raise my drunk body to the rings, and rings took a strong liking to the palms, and rearing up my body by strained muscles. And press into a hand stand. The music stopped, and the girls gasped. Was it really so or just my dreams? Who cares … I still see it with my closed eyes. And muscles remember.
I liked to be on duty at night. Everyone was asleep except the night watch. A nightstand at the end of a long corridor, the precious diary and pen in my hands. The poems — like diving into deep of my mind, searching for answers: who I am and what is my destiny? Why I am wasting my years here staying in someone else’s place? Spirit was troubled looking for applications. And didn’t find it. But the habit for a inner dialogue still stays with me till today.
Unforgettable Viktor Borodin, who had been expelled from the Institute years ago for forbidden love with foreign student, after three years service in the army returned to us as mature man. He had fantastic tenor. He was definitely the best voice of Ukraine and took all awards in the music competitions in the country those years. But being ruined deep in his heart he denied any invitation to a professional stage. We chatted a lot. He praised my satiric lines in the Institute newspaper. Fifty years later, a classmate confessed on Skype:
“You know, we thought, you should be a poet. You didn’t look like us …»
It turned out that my classmate Domulevsky became a poet. I find it out when we will meet 50 years later…
Before exams all cadets, jokes aside, buried in the textbooks scribbling hand cribs. The barracks with two-story bunks had a heavy smell of forty male bodies lying with textbooks on crumpled blankets. Tolia Kohanski, our main wonk something mumbling and mumbling aloud on a textbook. Like our Vietnamese friends, I saw them. Not surprisingly, it was in the final term when they married, a teacher and Tolia. Women of all ages love these positives. On the fiftieth anniversary of our graduation in September 2012 Kohanski came up together arm in arm. And then, a month after Tolia has gone… Rest in peace, my good friend.
At the fourth term three unusual events happened in my life. In the public library day by day I was reading Solgenitsyn’s «One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.» I forgot about classes, about everything in the world. Again and again the same dreadful question beaten in my head: Why? Who gave the orders? For what purpose? To keep millions in fear? Who were these butchers, these sadists, these snitches, these investigators, who supposed did their terrible job for their criminal inclinations? More questions: why the victims, the survivors, being rehabilitated by the XX Party Congress and returned home did not show up their hatred and sue them? Why these bastards did not claimed criminal in the court? Crime without punishment? They say that one only spat in the face of one passer-by, identifying in him his tormentor, investigator. That’s all.
“It was appropriate, they deserved being arrested, and punished, and sent to the camps — there were no innocent.» The former guard and informants whispered between themselves.
«The victims were not in vain». Their children kept saying even today. The old guard defended the past protecting themselves. And there would be no future for the country until they confess and be convicted for their crime. For the first time, a seditious idea sneaked into my mind: this party should be demolished and condemned as criminal forever! Otherwise these rats would run around among us and gnaw our conscience at nights. And when they die, their children will continue to torture us and justify the past. I believe in it now, half a century later.
The second event: I was almost expelled from the Komsomol for «blackening Soviet reality and High Marine School». The reason? I wrote a sketch for the student party, in which I ironically depicted some aspects of our everyday lifestyle. Just a few innocent jokes from the stage. I was blamed in insulting our alma mater and convicted to be excluded from Komsomol. At the last moment I was saved by Gennady Ohrimovich, good-natured Ukrainian from the fifth term of electro-mechanical faculty. He dropped the word: ”Don’t torture the guy! He stood for the better! A little criticism is not the crime!” And somehow judges calmed down, a good formula for forgiveness was found.
I’ll meet Gennady many years later. He, already retired, will invite me at his richly furnished two-bedroom apartment in Odessa. We will meet, two пray-haired old men. My children will play with his grandchildren, we’ll drink vodka talking about past. Gennady, the Honored Worker of the Fleet, will be chattering about exotic ports he had been sailing during thirty-odd years of voyages on white passenger cruisers. Tanned and beaten by the winds, not bent over the years, with the ineradicable Ukrainian accent, tall and handsome he looked happy and proud of his life. What an integrity of character and fate! In some way there was something in his life, that I envied.
Yes, and a third event. Two weeks later after my personal case I was summoned to the Komsomol City committee expecting the worse. Beltiukov, сhubby man with a sharp nose and tightly tied knit on the thick neck, the first secretary of the city Komsomol Committee looked stern at me and suddenly said without preamble:
“You will go to work in the city committee of the Komsomol?”
I draw something on my surprised face that twitched his thin lips:
“We’ve been thinking and decided to hire you. Komsomol needs those with initiatives and energy. Don’t worry about college. You will continue distance education and will done it with your course. Now go and see Peter Kondrashev, he will devote you to the details.”
Yes! No matter what it will be, but only out of math, integrals, theory of machines and mechanisms! At last I could be doing something interesting and creative to students of our city! So many ideas about how to make life more bright and exiting including sport, art, tourism, festivals and so on came to my mind! About knocking membership fees and monthly reports from primary organisations I did not know yet.
This news scared my parents:
“What the hell you doing? You must get your degree first! Get stable and respectful profession like your father has. Then do what you wish.”
Mother was in tears. Dad, only first week home after a year in the sea, kept silence. Finally, I simply cheated them. Every morning I secretly ran to my friend Yuri, changed the uniform on a civilian suit and went to the Komsomol office. Parents undersdoot, when we suddenly got the home phone, very rare at that time in Odessa. But this time they kept silence. Evidently, very few mates in the college knew where I disappeared. My diploma was charted by a team of three charming female students who practically saved my graduation. I’ve got my master degree in engineering, but fortunately never really used it …
My life already magically has been changed. Now I’ve got the power to make a difference around me, to change life to the better. For example students of dozen Odessa institutes and university needed sort of a leisure centre, we called it City Student Club. Three-storey old castle near the park Shevchenko was always quit and looked abandoned. It turned out that it belonged to the local KGB. It was their Palace of Culture. It stood empty, may be because they were all very busy with their important job. Our dear Communist Party approval to take the building away from the KGB and hand it over to the students — that was all what we needed. Time of Thaw made it possible. My speech at the Party Buro session was greeted by Buro members with applause. And the fate of the building was solved in favour of students. The students got their Centre!
The new life of an old castle began with moving in Odessa student satirical group «Parnas-2» from the old and dark basement. Young author Michael Zhvanetsky, whose jokes and sketches were already on the lips of Odessits and his band of actors became my friends for the rest of life. I was stuck to their merry night rehearsals, where I was admitted as “their man”. Funny sketch from the American silent movie “Three Musketeers” was a real fun: the fat huge Dodik sat in the chair facing the audience. Behind him Douglas Fairbanks (played by Victor Ilchenko) was fussing, fencing with Roman Kats. The viewers saw both the comic fight and its emotional reception on the Dodik’s face. Frozen in awe, laughing, crying, wiping his large face with handkerchief Dodik simply copied the audience. Really it was something.
Stardom fate was already waiting for Zhvanetsky but meanwhile he was with us and his jokes immediately became part of our own everyday language. We laughed as he wanted, and he wanted us to feel the entire false of officialdom. You have to be a real genius to stand out so much in Odessa joking manner on any occasion. This smile with squint, which will soon be recognized by the whole country, we saw every day. In my new life in Moscow we will meet as good friends and will keep in touch the years to follow.
Tailwind from Moscow sent us legendary Bulat Okudzhava whose soulful and sad poetry has returned to us the forgotten and forbidden power of art to peer into the soul of a person, into his deeply personal emotions. Feelings of sadness and sorrow instead of the official optimism and marches were well excepted by millions everywhere. New times were coming, we believed. First, we longed for his «Last Trolley.» Then he came himself, Bulat Shalvovich. To see and to hear him maddened crowd came to our Student Club. Inflating the veins in his powerful neck Lev Mac hold the heavy, oak door, which was ready to fly with the edifice loops. The thirst for freedom and self reflection were overwelming. Nothing political, it was cultural liberation and Renaissance. The symbol of the freedom for us was Moscow Polytechnic Museum full of crowds of agitated public, craving to hear Evtushenko, Akhmadulina, Vosnesensky. They were greeted in Odessa also… And we had our own poets and artists…
Those who ever walked along Deribasovskaya street knows this corner cafe with romantic name «Scarlet Sails». In 1962 we, the students community, renovated the former canteen catering, convincing the city authorities to reduce financial plan of this cafe in favour to youth club non profit activity. It was one of the first so called “youth cafe” in the country. Everyone could come and enjoy recently banned music of rock ‘n’ roll, sorrow and lyric tourist songs, famous poetry of Moscow idols and even talk about so called forbidden or “shelved” movies like «Clean Sky», «The Cranes Are Flying», «Colleagues,» «Man Goes for the Sun.»
The free spirit of Odessa attracted in the 60s many Moscow free-thinking intellectuals. Our guests were writers and journalists associated with liberal newspapers and magazines. We often met in the «Scarlet Sails» sewing the network of invisible brotherhood of the generation of 60’s, who dared to breath freely. There I met the legendary Alexander Asarkan of «Literary newspaper», who had been rehabilitated by Khrushchev and returned to Moscow from GULAG. His articles in “Literaturnaya gazette” about new Moscow theatres “Sovremennik” and “Taganka” we were impatiently waiting every week. A small, round-shouldered, indifferent to food and clothing, a man without age and metropolitan gloss, he continued writing to me from Moscow his hand painted postcards for years.
Vladimir Belov, a columnist for the “Theatre» magazine interviewed me about youth life in Odessa, about cultural news in town. He was trying as I understood to catch the pulse of carousing freedom at the Black Sea beaches. Later Asarkan sent to me Belov’s article pasted on postcard. From this article I learned what a great role youth played in Odessa spiritual atmosphere, how interesting and meaningful live we lived in Odessa. In this article he depicted me as a good example of new generation of 60-s. Fortunately, the «Theatre» magazine none of my friends used to read very often.
The sign of freedom — Valery Tsymbal, Polytechnic University student fall in love with woman almost twenty years older. Charming and brilliant artist Zoya Ivnitskaya ruled the art studio in the Student Palace of Culture. She taught liberated youth to express intimate feelings freely and artistically by pencils and paints. Valery was an artist in his own way: he masterly sewed pants. Usually for himself. And they were really looking good on his slim boyish figure.Their love was a manifestation of freedom for all of us. Valery’s parents, a party functionaries in our city, were choked and frightened. As Valery’s friend I communed between them and him. What could I say? I envied him. Valery confessed:
— Old man, I fainted from happiness. What is where? In bed, of course! Tell them that they are from it far behind, and I will do with myself something terrible if they stop me.
Zoya blossomed with happiness. She bravely ignored the indignation of parents and guardians of morality around. — This is my star hour, Igor. My last love. He needs me. And I need him more than anyone. It is pure happiness.
Nobody could stop they. Zoya recognised an artist in him and managed to pull him out of the Polytechnic Institute and prepared to apply to the Art Academy in Leningrad.
Finally he will enter the Art Academy, the faculty of Theatre Design. He will meet there with his future wife Mila, but also introduce me to my future wife Natasha. But first he was drafted to the army according the Soviet law. Six months later on leave in Odessa he persuaded our common friend Lev Mak, poet and bodybuilder, to make him a concussion. This mountain of muscles took his head bent and moved on the tram rails forehead. I didn’t know how strongly, but the artist spent two weeks in the hospital. He was dismissed then and returned to St. Petersburg to complete his education.
Valery had the golden hands: he made amazingly beautiful theatrical sets with smallest details. He was not addicted to alcohol, but as an artist… He was sent upon graduation to Siberia Drama Theatre. With Zoya they parted, but the feelings were not eroded. Zoya lived already in Los Angeles. 30 years later Valera also will immigrate to the USA. He will continue to sew custom-made costumes for champions on skating in his the weak-sighted room with the window overlooking the famous wooden promenade on Brayton Beach. Six months he sewed, six months he drank. English did not became his hobby, he also was at odds with computer. Faithful wife Mila, talented artist will earn as a social worker, caring for the elderly. As a public servant, she will get over her husband the health insurance. This means a lot in America. Finally they got the citizenship. Valery explained me their plans:
“Old man! As soon as we get a passport we fly home to St. Petersburg. Nothing to do here without the language and constant job.”
“And why do you wait for a passport?”
“You crazy? What if some of us need surgery? What I’ll be doing with it in Russia?”
But this conversation will happen in next century. And in another country. Between the two old men.
Yes, back to Odessa. Odessa of 60’s was not a province. Nor was it, by the way, the Ukraine. Rather, it was a free city, a city of sailors, who knew the world which was unattainable for the rest. By the way, in terms of a “neglected language”, it was Ukrainian, which nobody wanted not to learn, nor to speak in everyday life since most of the population here were Jews or Russians. As to me, I had only one grade “B” in my transcripts — it was for Ukrainian language. Oh, and “D” for the discipline, I forgot. But it did not count. Just think, the teacher was hit on the head with my shoe! But why she pulled my hand when I stood on my hands head down on the railing in the span of the third floor? If not on the teacher, so on the bottom with the bloodstains. Was there a choice? Anyway, my silver medal had gone anyway. Who cares…
My job in Komsomol was to oversee sports, culture and leisure activities. Up to midnights lit windows in a single room of the huge Party building: there was a place to meet for all city non-formal groups. Half a century later this building suddenly will became world known as a place of notorious provocation. More then forty so called “separatists” were burned there, when Ukraine was involved in the hybrid war with Russia for its independence. But in my times it was a place drown in a sick cigarette smoke, where endless and non-stop talks, debates, disputes so irritated my party bosses.
I knew that. But what the hack? Party wanted the socially active and responsible generation, right? Here we are! Peter Kondrashov, the head of the most important Ideology Department sympathised me and tried to teach the trouble maker to be patient and cautious. Years later he will flash once in Moscow in the High Party School. And then disappeared for ever from my life.
In those years, volunteers who helped the militia patrol the streets were called a “Brigade of Police Assistance” or sometimes «Light Cavalry.» That was a serious job, not just writing the reports about collecting the membership fees from the Komsomol members. We were issued guns on patrol. We patrolled on the Boulevard, near the harbour. Our clients mostly were SPIVs and whores, young prostitutes. Odessa was a city port, it breathes criminality. My friend ex-convict Volodya assisted me in the operative work. And one day he literally saved my life advising not to go home this night. A killer supposed to wait me in the entryway with an iron pipe. I saw this pipe then lying nearby the entrance.
Alla, Alenka, prostitute fourteen years old, deaf to my sincere wish her good moralizing. Scarlet plump lips, blue eyes under the light unruly bangs:
“What are you trying to persuade me? Where is your happiness — in the future? Mine is here and now. I just get out on the highway near Yalta as the first car will open the door and start such kind of life, which you have never seen I swear: kiss the feet, open all stores, restaurants, hotels, resort all year round. Let me at least a little to live, go, do not torment my soul!”
And I had no words to beat the guileless truth of her life. No way to change her mind… My moral pathos of the builder of communism before this naked cruel reality shocked me. In pre-trial detention, where she waited to be sent to an orphanage, we met in a few weeks again. I’ll come and she weep with her nose into my chest and quietly cry. That’s all. I never saw her again. Never.
This time there was another girl in my life — graceful and sublime Irina Makarova. The graduate of the Leningrad Art Academy, she watered the Soviet officialdom with inventive obscenities. Her inimitable sarcasm mocked my komsomol activity. But for some reason, she gave me the strange nickname: Benvenuto Cellini, the Italian sculptor, jeweler and rowdy of the Renaissance. By my Birth day Irina presented me a satirical poem written in Homeric hexameter scanning my inner world of romantic and hard believer in communism in one glass. She knew me better then I myself…
Irina introduced me as her boyfriend to the circle of underground poets and artists. Artist like Oleg Sokolov, the abstractionist, became my friend also. Yuri Yegorov, the author of unusually colourful and mighty paintings was already known in Moscow art galleries. Sasha Onufriev was the disobedient son of the member of Soviet Art Academy. I felt like somewhere near me existed unusual and dangerous world of cynics who despised my cherished ideas of shining future. In she strange way I was drawn to these people, like a butterfly to the flame of a candle.
Mak, who became life long friend and husband of Irina, was a weightlifter, goof and philosophising poet. He kept telling me that he spited at Komsomol. He «…quietly smoked in the opponent’s soul vent…” saying by his own words. Pacific and polite, very peaceful person once on the street he saw like two drunkards landed on the woman. He took both by the collars, easily lifted and brought their foreheads against each other firmly with a dry sound. Carefully put the limp bodies to the sidewalk, and went to where he was going. Lev studied at Polytechnic Institute, his dad was a dean there. But Lev did not finish his studies. Poetry overwhelmed his soul. He recited Brodsky:
Past lists, temples,
By churches and bars,
by posh cemeteries,
near the Grand Bazaar,
Peace and sorrow past,
near Mecca and Rome,
the burning sun in blue,
Pilgrims are on the ground.
They maimed, humpback,
their eyes are full of sunset,
their hearts are full of dawn.
They were singing the desert,
stars burn on them,
hoarse shout them birds:
that the world will remain the same,
Yes, remain the same,
and it is doubtful gentle,
the world will be a liar,
the world will remain forever,
but still endless.
And, therefore, there is no sense
belief in themselves but in God.
… And then, there were only
the illusion and the road.
And to be on the ground sunsets,
and be above ground dawns.
Fertilize its soldiers.
Approve its poets.
Finally he left Odessa to meet Joseph Brodsky. They became friends. In St. Petersburg, he was hired on an expedition to Pamir to carry heavy bales. Remember? He was pitching bumpy. Once expedition was blocked in the mountains in a snow blockage. Two days and nights he warmed with his huge mass the skinny body of the chief who fall with him in the same pit and dug by hands at the snow. Upon return the saved academician enrolled Lev into Oceanography faculty and took him to the marine expedition abroad. But Lev was blocked by KGB due to his “fifth paragraph”. Yes, he was Jewish. Here even the academician failed to help to change his nationality. My friend listened to the verdict and dropped his student ID in the face of rector and bought a ticket to Varcuta, to the Far North to study local life of the prisoners of GULAG. He gained respect there by showing how to lift the rod of 200 pounds just 100 times! Unbelievable.
Upon return to Odessa he married our Irina Makarova and then drove off to Moscow to the High Courses for screenwriters. Tarkovsky welcomed him to his group after reading his scripts. He graduated and came back in Odessa, where Irina and their two kids were waiting for him. He worked as an assistant director of the criminal drama doomed to be a hit serial with rising star Vladimir Vysotsky. One day he was summoned to the KGB and was expelled from the country as a antiSoviet dissident for his poetry. He was forced to divorce with Irina and leave the country.
In New York he learned language, worked as a taxi driver, then an engineer in the oil company. He kept sending invitations, money and gifts to Odessa. After all he married, got two more kids, made some money as realtor, bought a house with a pond beneath the balcony at Agura Hills, sold the house after divorce and returned to poetry. Alone. Proud. In a years I’ll help him to publish his poetry book in Moscow. He claimed that he was happy.
And Irina… Irina finally got permission to follow her ex-husband, got American citizenship, worked in the Yellow Pages as a corrector and died in piece at 77 near the Russian Orthodox church at Fountain street in Los-Angeles. local priest will pray for her and her adult kids and the grandchildren who speak Russian, as their «Iga» insisted, were all around with the most devoted friends of Russian community there at the cemetery. She knew how to keep the family, and family members loved her. She lived thirty years in the same place near the Russian church, which had sheltered her many years ago. With her husband, quiet and God-fearing artist who painted icons for this church, they preserved and cherished Russian culture, language and stile of life in their home.
Two years of my komsomol job was enough for me. I was fed up with what I learned about power, party and beaurocracy. Banquets for the entire working day in the fishing collective farms they called “inspection”. Long tables covered on the fresh air, full of cognac, vodka, wine, fantastic food… And not a word about job or inspection. I felt confused being one of them. There were plenty of problems deserved to be discussed, but not in this mood…
One of the secret of their power was the sinister sessions of Party Buro where hefty men fainted devoid of party membership cards for some unknown guilt. Probably known only by the Party itself. I saw them. The fear, deeply rooted fear in their guts made them weak and obedient.
Another secret — this thin telephone directory on my table. Only for official use, hiding the names and patronymic of the officials in the town hall, the city party committee, education department, housing and communal services, the police — in short, all those who actually make the decisions in the city. Often just a phone call to someone from this roster solved the problem.
Ordinary people of this town had no access to this land of abundance and solemn silence in carpeted corridors, exclusive buffets with cheap and perfect food. Sweet nomenclature world of omnipotence and wandering eyes, fleeing in the floor, in the ceiling, just not in the eyes. I did not know any other political system, and therefore I took this for granted. And I didn’t like it. But so we lived, live and will live, I guessed. Caution and caution: never knew what might blurt out, not to break the secret of power, not to ring out. The extent of the corruption of power I still have much to learn in the future.
I will never forget how Lisitsa, the first secretary of the Party city Committee, sitting at his immense desk with phones in the office near the rail station, showed me the real face of the Party. I staggered to him directly from the train, with a fiber suitcase and knitted pants with blisters on my knees. Hurried to share my impressions and thoughts after assignment to Dnipropetrovsk Palace of Culture with the Party leader. I was craving to tell him what we planning now to echieve in our City Students Centre and get his approvement and parental advice. What happened next choked me. He drilled me with hostile look, and suddenly hissed, leaning forward:
— Where did you come from in this way, jerk? This is City Party Committee, not a flee market! Get out of here, you hear?!
For a few seconds I stood there, motionless, the blood flooded the face and neck. Insulted without any guilt and pissed off, I left, backwards, closing the heavy door behind, not daring to look at his motionless secretary. The humiliation as never before remained in my heart for years. My respect to the Party crackled more and more, but my faith in the shining future became even more strong.
Cynicism of a handful of parasites, created their own island of abundance in the sea of universal needs and dull obedience was unbearable. I didn’t know yet the words of great Russian writer Victor Astafiev: «Power is always heartless, always treacherous shameful, immoral … always”. But I was already close to this view myself. Someday this truth should be evident to all Russian compatriots. Then they will come to the point where the western world started long ago: put this power under public control.
Coming generations will call us the children of Khrushchev thaw, “the sixties”. Thaw in Odessa personally knocked down the secretary of the City Party Committee comrade Sinitsa. It was my luck that they let me finish my education…
My youth passed away, and with it the short sixties vanished. There is no longer a cafe on the corner of Deribasovskaya street with a wonderful name «Scarlet Sails». But a stubborn memory draws there, the free spirit of fleeting years of thaw lives in a distant corner of the soul.
Chapter 2. Forgive me, Dad, I am not going to be a sailor.
I did not fall in love with power, hating of writing false reports about komsomol achievements. I did not accept their unwritten rules: don’t make a trouble, don’t criticise the Party, say “yes” when you want to say “no”. I handed over my official ID and realised that since now I am again helpless like all others in the face of any power. I remembered how this magic ID has helped me last time. It was in Moscow, where my sister had sheltered me for a few days. From her dilapidated wooden structure the police took me for beating up her jealous husband. I did not beat him, of course. When I saw his arm swinging at my sister, I lifted him by the collar and threw his skinny body on the shabby door. The door fell out with him into the street. He yelled, tore apart his clothes and call the police. The police ignored sister’s explanations, took away my passport, dragged to the Police office, locked behind the bars, like a tramp without a “propiska” — mark in the passport with the address. Only then I managed to show my ID through the bars. The policeman stared at me with puzzled eyes.
«Why didn’t you show it before, Igor Evgenyevich?»
And at once, as if by magic, all situation has been turned upside dawn. The police car drove me back, apologised to my sister and put her husband into the cell. An irresistible force of power.
From now on, my fate would be to serve the rattling diesels in the engine room in the middle of nowhere in the ocean. According the schedule the cruiser «Lithuania» sailed at night, stood in the next port at daytime. And cities and countries flashed one by one again and again. Istanbul with the smells of fried fish on the quays, Latakia with sunny beaches, Haifa with its hanging gardens, the bustling Alexandria with Egyptian exotic, golden Beirut with street bazaars, Famagusta with the legendary Othello castle, ancient Athens, Dubrovnik opening with fortress wall and transparent bay water.
The rotten eye of the first mate — the obligatory commissar on any ship — was watching us, the crew. In the narrow places like Bosfor channel, he hang around on the deck with a hunting rifle. Just in case. On leave after the watch in groups of five we usually had time only for quick shopping and back to the ship. No contacts with the foreigners, no museums, no cinema or restaurants and night clubs. Addresses known in advance, as well as those secret holes on the board, where the crew usually managed to hide some deficit for sale back at home. If you were smart enough, you could make as much as annual income for a short two-week navigation. Sailors with exit visas were wealthy people in Odessa.
Soviet passenger liners built in Germany were a paradise with luxury lounges, 24/7 night bars, swimming pools, sauna, music and dancing, and long-legged girls in swimsuits on upper deck. Bars, drinks, music, concerts, dances, romantic acquaintances. «Lithuania» was shining with all new clean, glitter handrails, cranes, pens, hangers, until they were screwed up by Soviet tourists who didn’t disdain toilet rolls as well. At the end of a season the ragged ship usually was scheduled to repair, restore toilets and cabins … In the spring — all over again. Every two weeks the new group of tourists came on board and fiesta with the new ones continued. It was nice for one season. But month by month, years by years? Was it what I was born for? In the end I decided to quit this dolce vita and change the type of a ship. A tanker, oil transport probably would be better, I decided.
That is why I found myself soon at Hiroshima, at the shipyard of Mitsubishi, where Japanese made the huge tanker for Soviet Union. A real giant: 64 thousand tons deadweight — displacement, two main engines — two huge screws give up to 32 knots, on the deck you can ride a motorcycle. Elevator for eight decks. Air condition and laboratory cleanliness in the engine room. The crew member had individual cabins with a porthole, shower and air conditioning. On the upper deck there was a swimming pool, a volleyball court, table tennis, weights, a bar. What a job! Sort of a resort, only without tourists any more around, no drinks and dances.
Unfortunately Japan did not open its heart to me. Apparently, I was not ready for the randevue. I hadn’t read much about this mysterious country, we were not advised to go deeper into its culture and everyday life. The country rushed all at once amicably from the metro and trains to work, doing exercises on a command during the lunch break: you can see raised hands in hundreds of windows. It seemed to me that all Japanese admired to work. Work and work, holy cause. On a signal in bulk scatter from workplaces back to the metro and trains. The command people. A clear rhythm of this organism is amazing. These people didn’t show their interest in us or in the Soviet Union. American rock music in every cafe seemed to me very strange. It seemed that no one here remembered Hiroshima. Who knows, may be the scars and wounds in the Land of the Rising Sun healed quickly.
But our ship was splendid. The rays of the autumn Japanese sun caress clean skin. Splashing in the pool. I tried this attraction: swallow from the vent pipe. The height was three feet, the depth of the pool — two. You enter the water almost flat, with hands you manage to push off from the bottom. Nobody could repeat it fortunately. The broken neck was guaranteed. We played table tennis on the upper deck. The second mate, my friend for years bought the rolls of soft, gentle toilet three-layer tissue:
— Look, how the officers are rubbing. Come, I’ll give you a fray.
In general, we lived amicably and cheerfully. But two months was enough to get bored there.
Finally, the engine underwent running tests, the rest of the crew flown by plane from Moscow, the master signed the acceptance document, and «Lugansk» headed for Singapore. Farewell, Japan! I was advised by an experience crew members to save our accumulated salary for Singapore.
— You will be surprised!
And I was. Singapore — a city with more then 100 Fahrenheit and sun without shadow burned my film with all exotic pictures. The radio brought the breaking news: President Kennedy was assassinated by the killer who had spent a few years in the USSR not long ago. All Soviet ships in the harbor were detained at the roadstead. The master with his mates were summoned to the local authorities. We heard terrible things about Singapore prison.
Meanwhile we were attacked by the famous Malay-Bazaar dealers and retailers which surrounded the ship in the dozens of kayaks loaded with consumer goods. Very soon they were sucked into the sides of the ship. The slippy merchants silently were clinging to the shipboard like monkeys with their hooks. They scaffolded onto the deck and quickly pulled up the bales of goods with the same hooks. Without saying a word they demonstrated different stuff like swimming trunks, T-shirts, shirts, jeans, motley women’s blouses, shoes, etc.
One of them shoved me a deck of cards:
— Go to the toilet, then buy. Very cheap, Russian!
I turned red recognizing a pack of porno. Fortunately I was distracted by something more astonishing: the beautiful girls already climbed the ladder — alive, smiling youth of the planet. They spectacularly were moving their round hips shamelessly smiling at our greedy eyes. I stood almost frozen with the open mouth.
— Can I use the rest room, sir, in your cabin? — addressed a long-legged, open love being to me.
Light olive eyes looked right into the soul. Fear and horror paralyzed me. In my cabin? For what?!
The loudspeaker from the master’s deck saves the situation:
— Attention of the crew! All free from the watch must expel the whores from the ship!
And these beauties were carefully dispatched down the ladder, showing by their faces and hips what we just have lost.
— Russian onanist! — I have already heard these offensive words from European prostitutes in the narrow Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea. The foreign ships were usually more hospitable for them then Soviet.
«Lugansk» was happily released and we continued our way to South America. Atlantic mild, breezeless weather made the trip pleasant, the expectation to see the splendid Brasilia with a glass of Riesling after lunch every day kept all crew in a good mood. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean under the rumble of diesel engines I was listening Khrushchev’s speech proposing general and complete disarmament and old doubts overwhelmed my soul. I laid with my head back on a warm salty deck which slightly vibrated by the engine in the womb of thousand tons of steel. I stared at the Southern Cross on the blue velvet of the night sky and searched for mine one among the shimmering stars. What is my destiny? The era of all hot and cold wars was close to the end and the new bright future was demanding to participate. The thoughts about how to change my life to make it more meaningful and useful tortured me…
Brazil appeared in a hazy sunset and had a nice surprise for us next morning. We were robbed at night while pumping oil into a small local tanker stuck to our board. The nimble Brazilians climbed onto our rescue motorboats and stole all emergency supplies. Okay, we were warned. But nevertheless next day I was robbed in the middle of a sunny day at the central square of this brilliant city of Santos. Breathe this oily air, smell the flavor of coffee beans, make a wish. Vasya, the ship cook, a salted sailor, led us directly to the best place in town — the drug store to buy alcohol. He meant a pure spirit.
— It’s the lowest price here, — he said.
The ladder was brought and the owner in big glasses crawled under the ceiling. He found a dusty bottle somewhere at the corner.
— What are you going to do with it? — he asked the strange group of foreigners.
— To drink it! Don’t you know?
— We’re wiping and cleaning our horses with this staff. Where are you from, gentlemen?
— Tell him to relax and bring the glass! — Vasiliy addressed to me. The man in glasses was shocked. The whole family came to see how «these people» drink “this solution”. Vasya screwed the bottle and in a gulp, almost drained 200 grams into the throat. Wiped his sleeve and said:
— I buy a box, 12 bottles!
— Me too! — supported him all of us.
While the owner hastily searched in his storages 60 bottles of pure spiritus the small crowd surrounded us trying to guess where the human being drink this poison for pleasure. The name of cosmonaut Tereshkova awakened something in their minds:
— Ahhh, the Communists!…
Excited crowd followed us to the port — a procession of singing, dancing people and we with the boxes. At the checkpoint, appreciated pharmacist handed each of us a bag of Brazilian coffee as a gift. But it turns out that it was not allowed to take coffee out of Brazil in such amount. Vasya immediately found a way out. He dig few small bottles of «Stolichnaya» out of his pockets and handed them over with expressive speech of appreciation to the customs officers. The gates were opened and we said farewell to our new Brazilian friends.
But on board, however the first mate forced us to give him our boxes and locked the in the storage:
— It will be safer here until we get back home!
Next day I was robbed by two very friendly young Brazilians. My valet with the half a year salary has gone after very joyful acquaintance. Anyway very hospitable country. It looked strange, but my 12 bottles of pure spirit actually will change my life very soon completely. But this was yet to come.
Near Cuba, a mile from American military base of Guantanamo we were trapped in the hurricane Flora. It was quite, windless sunny day. Precaution which our master caught by radio seemed reasonless. But in a few minutes the horizontal surface of the ocean slowly lifted up before our amazed eyes and moved forward to us as a water wall. The tanker ducked in a giant wave like a submarine. Diesel engines howled, exerted all their strength, pulling the steel body of the ship away from the reefs. The aft compartment very soon have been flooded. I dove into water in a light diving suit and fighting with the stream of water pulling the wick and tools from my hands filled the punctured seal of the propeller shaft. I did it and rushed again to the engine room to continue dangling and rolling from one side bulkhead to another, monitoring the dashboard. A military American helicopter above the deck was ready to pick up the crew. Americans dropped the rope ladder:
— Come on, Russian, cling, until it’s too late!
Fortunately the hurricane died, as it had born — suddenly, leaving Santyago de Cuba covered with a thick layer of yellow mud. Only tops of trees and roofs protruded. «Lugansk» was loaded with sugar and left the harbour heading to home. On our way to Leningrad depression put me in the bad. I felt myself so miserable imagining that after a week in Leningrad we will go back far away from the harbor… I lay motionless in the ship’s infirmary and stared without purpose at the white ceiling. Why I was born, for what purpose?
Odessa was burying their sons. Coffins stood in the foyer of the Seamen’s Palace on Primorsky Boulevard. People blocked the Deribasovskaya, Pushkinskaya, slowly moving to the coffins. Silently the crowd was parting to let the sailors go through. People were lowering their eyes downwards, giving the age-old tribute of sorrow to those who had not returned. And respect for those who once again went to sea.
Cargo ship «Uman» drowned in the Bay of Biscay loaded by iron ore. The storm overturned sixteen thousand tons of iron, and our baddies together with Babitsky, the master, who remained on the bridge, immersed and went down forever. A few survivors kept silence. They were ordered not to say a word about the shipwreck. Not a word about how the frozen ore was loaded in Tuapse and how it melted in the Mediterranean Sea. And how its cap slid to the starboard side, and how the ship was beating and heeling and heeling, and how the ballast was pumped for some reason into upper, not lower ballast tanks, and for that reason did not become stern to the wave. And why the master was not allowed to change the course to the nearest port of Cadiz, only thirty miles away.
Many years later, in far Los Angeles, I will learn the tragic details of that night from the 87-year-old Rudolph Vanth, the chief engineer of Uman, who was on vacation just before this ill-fated flight. An old sailor, he not only remembered my dad, respected name in the Black Sea Shipping Company. He told me with a cracked old man’s voice, how the second mechanic protested against the sloppy loading of frozen ore, who refused to go on a flight and was quietly dismissed from the shipping company after the shipwreck. How the two authorities, the captain and the captain-mentor who was responsible for the delivery of the cargo, were grasped on the bridge, how, because of pride, they did not give SOS, as they forgot to clog the geese of exhaust ventilation of the ballast tanks, and through them the «Uman», capable of maintaining buoyancy even on its side … The shipping company wrote off everything for a storm, they did not even open a criminal case. Just not to spoil reporting…
«Lugansk» left the harbor without me. After two weeks in the hospital I was assigned to go Germany for participate in checking the new cruiser built for the Soviet Union in Warnemünde, German Democratic Republic. I crawled in the engine room under the steel decks checking the tightness of kilometers of pipeline, ate smashed potatoes and sausages at the cheap hostel every morning, drunk beer in the bar crowded by singing drunk Germans in the evenings. Germans got up at five, went to bed at nine, after five they close all shops, after seven — all the shutters in their houses, the town looked dead until the morning. At work they come quarter to six already in working overalls. Exactly at three — they were in the shower. Clean shirt, gentlemen suit, the bike to get home.
Once I asked Hans, an elderly worker with whom we examined the engine:
— How did you, such civilized nation, allowed Hitler to turn you into merciless killers and fashists?
He seemed to stumble in conversation. He paused. Then said, carefully choosing the words:
— We paid for this. We will never have fascism again. But you? I do not know.
I didn’t comprehend what Hans meant. Did he mean fascism in Soviet Union? In my country? I couldn’t imagine that anybody in the world might consider that Soviet power relevant to fascism. No way! But I didn’t ask him any more…
The shining «Bashkiria» harboured in Leningrad and instead to start cruising it was waiting for weeks until workers appeared on board and began to break the upper deck, remodelling the first class cabins, expanded the radio room, installed on top the huge antennas. The ship was being prepared for a government voyage with Khrushchev on board to visit the Scandinavian countries. To prepare the crew to such an responsible mission
different Party and Leningrad Komsomol representatives visited us with lectures and instructions. My bottles of pure alcohol from Brazil were just in time emptied during these honored guests. Among them I met Vadim Churbanov, Central Committee “apparatchik” who was liberal thinking intelligent, educated person. One day Vadim lured me to join him in the tour of seven writers, poets and singers along the Volga river with educational mission and spirit of liberty of the sixties.
Bard songs, unforgettable nightly discutions about eternal values, meetings with remarkable people of the Soviet province cured my soul. Vadim usually started these themes, as if teasing with easy victories over routine and doubts. My heart ached, I was ready to believe again in the shining future. And when Vadim already from Moscow mailed me an issue of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” with a large motto: ”Komsomolsk of the 60’s Begins.” I was ready to quit my marine career. Somewhere in Kazakhstan the new city was going to be built — a pearl of agriculture, new city of Karatau. The party appealed to the youth inviting to embody promised shining future in one particular place. It was the sign of my destiny. All my life I was waiting to make something significant at the new milieu. Vadim, the tempter, teased from Moscow:
— Well, sailor, are you ready to take a chance and test yourself?
I put my belongings in an old sports fibre suitcase and said farewell to my mates. I called home and apologized to my parents:
— Sorry, Dad, I quit. I’m going to change my life.
So I left the ship in front of all crew. My Marine School mate Vadim Nikitin, now the master of «Bashkiria», standing on the captain bridge expressively twirled his finger at his forehead. It meant: «you are crazy, buddy!»
The words of my beloved school teacher echoed in my ears: «Be consistent, Igor! Don’t jump from one side to the opposite! Don’t lose yourself!” She showed us the beauty of the literature, widened our horizons. She treated us like grownups, allowing freedom in our essays. We both adored Mayakovsky. And I also believed: «There will be a garden city here». She, who saw how the Nazis had cut the head to her child, was no longer a dreamer. But she did not stop me to believe.
What did it mean “to be lost”? I had made a mistake years ago. Now the second attempt to find my way. Vadim was frank and tough:
— Win or die!
Hey, blue shining cities! I’m here, my country! Here I’m — in the centre of main events! I was sitting in the plane on my way to Alma-Ata, crumpling the paper of assignment in my pocket and thinking about life I just left. I imagined name by name all my school mates and the feeling of guilt made me sick. I saw Sanya Palyga, the best football player of the school, who on the very first day of work lost his legs and right hand under the shunting in the dark locomotive. After dozen surgeries in Moscow Sanya returned to Odessa. He worked all his life as a design engineer in the Marine Research Institute. He refused even to see his date, his fiancee, who spent nights under the windows of his ward. He raised his daughter from a girl friend whom he met at the hospital and got married. I will see him dancing on prostheses in comradely evening parties twenty years later. After her heroic and kind father will pass away the daughter leave Odessa to America with her husband. Sorry, Sanya.
In a storm near port Zhdanov, a barge with 900 degrees Celsius agglomerate turned over, and Vitaly Labunsky was boiled in that hot salted cauldron in front of the weeping helpless classmate who pulled this damned old barge in tow. Sorry, Vitaly.
The steam boiler exploded in the harbor port of Riga, and our classmate called «Redhead» — mechanic Mukhin, who was on duty that night on a new, poorly adjusted ship, perished. Sorry, «Rehead».
From the pitching in the Atlantic, the auxiliary diesel cover removed by the hoists during the repair, suddenly slipped off the grilles and slam the mechanic hanging into the cylinder. His head rolled out from the lower hatch of the cylinder to the feet of the watchmaker. Sorry, buddy.
Another victim of the sea returned home after an eight-month absence, learned from good neighbors about the betrayal of his beloved wife and hang himself in the bathroom on a belt from his trousers. Another classmate Popelyukh, having lost his appetite and a sleep in endless skittering (shuttling) in the ocean, jumped a stuffy tropical night from a board to feed sharks. The team missed his absence only in the morning. But where to look in the endless expanses?
Peter Ivankin, giant of 240 pounds, good-natured Pyotr, became a healer at his home town near river Don. He treated children from stuttering with his hypnosis eyes, and the glory of his therapeutic skills gathered crowds near his house… Hello, Peter, you also distracted from the course…
Bob Lyashenko and his wife Alla born a dumb and blind son with a overgrown fontanel on the top of his little head. The parents didn’t want to drop the child and eleven years of their life were sacrificed to this helpless eternal baby. Then, when the beloved child passed away, Bob and Alla left their home and wandered with hoes and shovels through the villages and churches, earning bread and picking up medicinal herbs in the steppes and estuaries of the neighborhood, curved roots, strange forgotten flowers with smells that reach to the heart. Their eldest son Valka, the diver, lived and worked on Sakhalin, grow grandchildren and sent his parents love and small presents from Far East.
— Look, everything is abandoned: houses and a dispensary, and vineyards, — Alla will speak to me 30 years later hosting my new family and my small kids in theirs bungalow in the village near drying Berezanskiy estuary. — Our country needs to breathe out our generation. And do not sweat it up, do not be nervous. Everything will go as you see, and the estuaries were not cleansed, and the apricot on the ground, and drunk leftovers in the yards. She gave me some dry leavers:
— That is wormwood, what a smell, just breathe!
With a strict voice with inexpressible Odessa jokes, she will give lessons to my young wife and my little ones, who came from a distant, already foreign, Moscow to Ukrainian village.
Oleg Ryndin — bodybuilder and sly student, who studied on the principle «don’t stick your head out!», was stuck to his forgotten little town Berdyansk on Azov sea. During Perestroika he will start a dispatching company as a family business for three of them: himself, his wife and his son. They will rule their small fleet of four ships from a cozy office scurrying around the world with such a efficiency as the managers of the Black Sea Shipping Company did not even dream. We will swim on his own yacht chatting about our old times…
Vitya Kornenko, retiring, will dedicate his life to an Orthodox church and became a writer Victor Korn. His poem about Napoleon on the island of Elena he will send me to Los-Angeles. Why among us, atheists, he turned into a Christian hard believer I can’t imagine. More then that: he will be possessed with the idea that the execution of the Tsar family in Yekaterinburg in 1918 was a ritual murder, a worldwide conspiracy of Jews. And he will start his own investigation. We will have very hot discussion by Skype regarding war in Ukraine and his anti-American position.
Volodya Shevyakov, a tenure Professor in our Alma Mater for almost forty years also will not eccept the robbery of the mighty Black Sea Steamship fleet. He resigned and moved to small village of Frolovo near Volgograd to teach kids in a local school.
The elegant and aristocratic Victor Borodin, the soloist of the college’s amateur chorus, probably the best tenor in Ukraine, will die from a heart break right in one of the offices of the new bosses who sell the shipping company on a boat. Allegedly for debts, allegedly for non-compliance with the register, allegedly at a residual value …
Forgive me, buddies. Sanya Palyga, you remember, how you interrupted me in the endless night talks:
— Stop quoting the others! When you come up with your own thoughts?
I will, Sanya. Give me the time. I’ll figure it out!
Chapter 3. Obsession. Karatau, Mon Amoir.
It was our irresistible political seducer Vadim Churbanov, who sent me this issue of the Komsomolskaya Pravda national newspaper. I read it, crossed out my previous life and began all over again. In my work record appeared a sign: «Sent at the disposal of the Central Committee, Moscow.» We started there working on the program of spiritual revival of the Kazakh small city of Karatau. I used my imagination to draw what should be done there in local schools, kindergurdens, libraries, cinema, theatre, Palace of culture, music school, football field, swimming pool to make life there not too much different from Moscow. Yes, the blue shining city of my dream should became true.
Vadim who supported all my efforts encouraged me:
— Yes, we shell overcome, sailor.
Several months later I found myself in the plane flying to village of Chulaktau, recently renamed into the town of Karatau. This «pearl of agriculture» as Khrushchev named it, opened to my sight in the centre of the phosphorite basin as a red steppe, then a small lonely lake, and finally a small settlement with few dusty treeless streets, built up with barracks and standard five-story buildings. At the only plaza in this town I saw from above the sign “Gorniak» (Coal Miner) on the old-fashioned brick structure. It was a palace of culture with a screening room of 400 seats and the lobby for dancing as I found out soon.
Here, in 1946 according the General Planning a mineral mining with processing plant was started. But the project wasn’t finished for some reason as most of the gigantic projects of Soviet Government. Only 20 years later Khruschev, who was trying to improve agriculture, decided to continue building these mines and processing plant to produce the fertilises. And Party summoned the youth volunteers for that. Well, here I am with six thousand other volunteers in the middle of the steppe. Karatau, mon amour! So I thought, looking at the red poppies to the horizon.
Romantic songs, popular in the 60’s, gathered at Karatau new generation from all over the country. The Beatles and Presley would not have inspired Soviet youth better than these touching non official songs of singing poets, the bards. Great spirit-lifting power was hidden in these songs. From Moscow and Saratov, Odessa and Kishinev, volunteers were heading to the Virgin Lands, to railroad BAM, to Karatau. From the top of my head came the vision: what if these romantics of the 60’s with their faith in Revolution simply replaced voluntarily the prisoners of GULAG? Those who built in the 30’s Komsomolsk and Belomor Channel? No! This time everything should be different. This time no walls with barbed wire and guards with sheepdogs. This time if Party wants to build something very important for shining future it should make some preliminary efforts to provide conditions for decent and worthwhile life to everybody even at the Far North or wild steppe. That was the reason why Komsomol sent me there. That was my mission how I understood it. The sixties changes our mind, had shifted the priorities: we were happy to serve our country, but we were not a victims of «progress», we were the winners. Yes, country was more important and valuable than family. The future was more exciting than the present. These values still meant something for us. At least, for me. Let’s start with replacing vodka by books, cinema, sport, theatre… I cherished a plan to make a documentary film about this town, about its people, their concerns and dreams.
I wrote a letter to my friends — a poets, artists in Odessa inviting them to share with me this unique experience — to build the shining future immediately. Lev Mak responded with joy. But changed his mind in the last moment and whistled by to the stud farm. He choose to go around riding horses instead of blessing people with his poetry. Two members of the group of modernist artists (I’ve got reprimand for being their friend during my short career in Odessa Komsomol) also confirmed their desire. They flew to Moscow, met with Vadim, got tickets to Karatau. And disappeared at the last moment. Vadim tried to announce the all-Union search, but I dissuaded him: what to expect from the artists… Only my beloved school teacher on Russian literature Olga Andreevna decided to leave Odessa in old age for the sake of a new life in the wild steppes. Apparently, she believed in us those whom she brought up. And Bella Dadesh, my classmate responded with a short telegram: «I am your soldier. I’m flying out. Meet up”.
Meanwhile I lived on a mattress in a room allocated to the library in one of the workers’ hostels (parcels with books already were on their way). I spent days and weeks to get acquainted with people, with their concerns, gathering stories about their previous life, talking with city authorities and management of the construction. As a messenger from Moscow I was coopted in the komsomol Buro as a Secretary on ideology. But in the same time I felt that fathers of the city took me with some suspicion as an alien. It was evident from the first glance — they didn’t care too much about workers, about things like culture or quality of their life, about their leisure. People’s everyday life was not their first priority. They got their salaries for something else. I was sent here by komsomol to change the situation.
In the Spring special train arrived with 240 volunteers from Leningrad. We met these slightly scared and disoriented young boys and girls with flowers and orchestra. Very soon it turned out that Leningrad had sent us not volunteers, but “socially non desirable elements” and even criminals expelled from the city by a court decision. At first in furious I was ready to write a letter to Moscow with complains, but looking at the frightened eyes of the arrivals I changed my mind. They were not going back anyway. We had to accept them and encourage. So I address a speech to them:
“Hello, guys, cheer up! You were not brought to the “zone”! You are here to build the city of the future! We are masters of our own lives here! Beautiful climate, far away from all bureaucrats, important work and plenty of opportunities to make our life here better and even beautiful. It’s our time, guys.”
Among them I’ll find good friends soon. We started knowing each other sitting by the fire at summer nights, chatting and singing. I told them stories about Brazil, Japan, Singapore, about sailing around the globe. They listened, following me to exotic unknown countries. Two girls had so good voices, and they did not have to be begged to sing. Their voices went high to the stars. One of the present began to read poetry. I recognized something familiar:
Past altars and stages,
past temples and taverns,
past classy graveyards,
past street market’s jabber,
past peace, and past woe,
past Mecca and Rome,
burned by the sun’s blue glow,
the earth the pilgrims roam.
I shrugged and smiled. He stopped:
“What’s wrong? Do you know that?”
They’re heavily injured and hunchbacked,
they’re hungry and almost naked,
their eyes are full of sunset,
their hearts are full of daybreak.
The deserts are singing behind them,
sheet-lighting breaks out abruptly,
up above the stars are igniting,
and birds are screaming gruffly:
that the world will remain the same,
yes, indeed, the same,
dazzling with snowy game,
with fondness its unlikely name,
the world will remain underhanded,
the world will remain forever,
perhaps it can be comprehended,
it has no limits, however.
Which means it will make no sense
to believe in yourself or Lord.
Then he finished:
…And the things that remain are, hence,
the illusion and the road.
All sunsets remain in-service,
all daybreaks are still in splendor.
The soldier will muck earth’s surface.
The poet will be its defender.
So we made friends after this evening. Step by step the amateur theater was born out of these nights. We all got accustomed to come together after work for writing and rehearsing sketches about what we felt and thought. Then someone touched the guitar strings and tuned it, and started playing quietly. All favourite songs, as once upon a time in Odessa, by Bulat, by Kukin, by Vizbor, by Klyachkin sounded in the night. And these bright stars above, that made us lightheaded… If this was not a happiness, what was a happiness after all? And I was then twenty-four years old only. And here was my place, here, with these people. These words of Nazim Hikmet were exactly about us:
… If I do not burn,
If you do not burn,
If we do not burn,
Who then will dispel the darkness?
Aiming to fill in the cultural gap between the capital and the province, I hastened to subscribe to the popular liberal magazines «New World», «Youth», «Foreign Literature». And more: we were waiting here for the students of Moscow Conservatory, of the Library institute and famous VGIK — Film Institute. The student’s councils promised that while we were working on the Karatau project in Moscow. They were about to come.
On quiet moonlit night we were walking after a rehearsal. The night steppe smelled of dried flowers. Suddenly a danger noise grew up behind me. Somebody at night was chasing us. Who, for God’s sake?
I breathed out and we rushed. Mysterious dark force, like an evil was catching up, breathing in the back. Who? For what? I threw off the flip flops. Something painfully slashed behind. My jaw crackled. Without looking back, I jumped into the hostel and managed to slam the door in front of furious darkness.
In the hospital, where I found myself the next day with my teeth beaten out by a soldier’s badge, the delegation of soldiers of construction battalion located near the town came to apologise. It turns out they were looking for an unknown Kurd who raped a bride of one of these soldiers. I have heard about local Kurds. Nearby there was their settlement had been settled years ago. And al of them obtained a special status. They were not citizens of the USSR, so they were not drafted into the army, but they had rights to work and to live here. Handsome European looking male. It was known, that they liked to hunt for Russian girls, because according to their tradition a child born from a Kurd was considered a Kurd. That was the way how they replenished the decline of their population.
Typical story: a men entered the women’s dormitory, locked the door and started to fertilize everyone one by one. One girl stood in the window:
— Do not touch me, I’ll jump down!
He approached. I saw a bloodstain under this window. This murderer was not even sued.
— Bribed the corrupted militsia, — said knowledgeable people.
Surprisingly many nationalities lived next to us in Karatau. I saw the Germans from the Volga region, the Chechens, the Vietnamese, even the Greeks who lived for some reason with the passports of their Greek kingdom. Hardworking Chinese people were crossing the border freely in search of living space and work. The most notable were the Kurds. But in some strange way at the construction site and in the mines were working hard only Russian romantics.
Finally the long-awaited delegation of the Moscow Conservatory students arrived. The violinist Galina was leading them, a gentle soul, tall beauty from the cover of the magazine «Ogonyok». She kept her word given to me in Moscow. She brought the musicians, future celebrities and music critics with her.
— Here we are! Remember, you didn’t believe me!
Her eyes shone. And the sun was melting in the trembling heat of the air. We are heading in the bus along the dusty road to the mines, where miners were already waiting for the guests. Having put on helmets, the Moscow guests descend in the cages, crouching, cautiously stepping. It’s dark and stuffy in the mine’s pit. Excursion, however. Later in the crowded dining room, I interrupted long and academically boring lecture on the history of music:
— Wait, ladies! Let me talk to people!
And I said this, very simple and shortly:
— I am not a musician of music critic. But I swear, if you stop talking and simply listen this music, performed by Andrey, the genius, something going to happen with all of us right now.”
And Sarasate’s melodies from the tender violin of Andrey Korsakov poured into hearts all of us. These rude and tired workers were mesmerized and, I thought, will never forget this concert in their lives. Both sides were happy.
And a month later the VGIK students arrived. They brought a few art films widely acclaimed by media. We announced the screening and discussion afterwards. The club «Shakhter» was packed. The film «Nine Days of One Year” showing the love story between three physics at Science laboratory became a sensation in Moscow. It was interesting how our people responded to the massage. Yury Gusev, who moderated the discussion, was interrupted by the audience:
— You, the film critic, do not hang noodles on our ears! We are not as stupid as you may think. We like the movie. But it is not the story about us. It’s about you probably. As to me, I will not go to work tomorrow on this fucking synchrophasotron, I’ll get my shovel in the coal mine! We live here in the empty steppe, you live in Moscow where I have never been and not sure if I ever visit it. See the difference? Can you make my life here better, student?
Yuri stopped and looked at me. I shrugged and waited for his answer. This is a real life, filmmaker. And Yuri said after a short hesitation:
— Why me? You should change your life together with your friends! The film only shows you the direction, if you like it.
Great! Good for you, Yuri! Instead of analysing the movie, the miners turned their attention on their own life and local problems. That was how real art should work, I thought!
Film students didn’t teach us how to make movies. Instead they conducted a sociological research. What people read, what they watch, that music they listen to? What should be done for a better life? What they believe in? People, by the way, answered willingly and honestly. Even about what they wasn’t asked about. Some mentioned such hidden problems like the lack of water for industrial needs in this area. Some even knew the secret about entire construction project. They mentioned, that the technological process has been stolen from the Northern factory assembled for Khibiny minerals found beyond the Arctic Circle. So what we were building was not originally designed for local phosphorites. Will it work properly? The answers were anonymous, so I couldn’t confirm or deny. But what I heard was that city bosses wanted to turn the plant into turnkey before the planned deadline in Moscow and got awards. Anyway, that was the first time when I saw how important and effective sociological field research might be.
The guests left, the songs were over, and the City of Shining Future was still not visible even on the horizon. What, in fact, all of us were doing here? If the Party needed a workforce, so here we are, more then enough of us. But City of Future couldn’t be built on a lie. They needed us only for one thing: to dig, to lay bricks, to mix concrete. But what to build, they decided in Kremlin. We were not invited there. The city leadership and construction management, apparently, considered our cultural needs and general life conditions as something not important. They had more serious issues. Some kind of front-line situation. As they called it: the labor front. — Well, first you’ll finish the war … that is, we’ll accomplish the plant and then… but not yet, young people. Not before the plan.
I did not understand how long all of us here and the nation in general must live with hands-on jobs only? Well, finally we decided to go to their offices without invitation. I took a floor at Party Buro session and expressed our desire to repair the “Gornyak” club. We, the youth of the town, will volunteer. Buro members mumbled something in response:
— We do not decide, we need a letter to the Central Committee and to the Council of Ministers of Kazakhstan with the draft resolution like «On setting cultural and mass work and cultural construction in Karatau.»
OK. We prepared the letter with our proposals and passed it to city leadership. In this letter we proposed many other things like construction of a gym and a sport facilities on a lake shore, a full-fledged library, a music school and amateur theatre. What happened next surprised me. The secretary of the Central Committee of Komsomol in Alma-Ata responded to the letter. He even visited Karatau, 6 hours behind the wheel. We met and he said:
— You made a big fuss, buddy. I’m after you. Let’s go to address your speech to the Plenum of the Central Committee in Alma-Ata.
Well, I did. Like once in Odessa, I spoke on behalf of people defending their interest and their rights for decent life. Only this time there was no applause, no immediate response. I came back and the routine of life continued. Going through yellowed pages of my old diary, I recall the pain. Like a toothache. Every morning I suffered thinking about each new coming day when I have to meet and talk to people whom I had promised the rose garden.
Something unexpected happened later. The local KGB office got the anonymous letter about my «criminal past» by mail. The officer showed it to me, chuckling.
— Read, — he said.
I read: “FYI: this Kokarev is not a sailor. He did not study in any Odessa marine college. He never sailed abroad. His High Marine College diploma is a fake. It’s a rascal who fooled all of you. I think that KGB should take care of him.»
— What do you say, the Komsomol leader, about your good fellows? Did they unmask you at last?
Was he joking? He knew for sure that my past was enlightened more than once by KGB’s x-ray before the Central Committee appointed me as its representative here, at construction site. But it didn’t come out of my head: who? What for? Only few years ago such anonymous letter was enough for severe sentence — 10 years of GULAG if not worse. Bad. My suspiciousness poisoned interrelations with friends. The gloomy forebodings did not evaporate.
Did these people really need me with all my plans to make their life more meaningful and bright? Life here was very simple and traditional in spite of my affords. The second secretary of the Komsomol, the Kazakh, takes an Party Committee’s car and rides far into the steppe to the shepherds. There he takes a fancy ram from the collective-farm as his property, gives it to shepherds to hammer it and then cooks back at home in a smoked, crumpled aluminium saucepan. He showed me his hospitality in traditional way — shoving big pieces of meat into my mouth with his hands. A funky first secretary, Russian (here the first — always Russian) poured vodka into his seven-year-old son glass, saying:
— Learn, son, how to build communism. Come in handy!
Life around me looked frozen, like a dead landscape. In warm blood I wrote to regional newspaper “Jambul’s Truth” a converted version of my recent speech at the Plenum. Would they publish it or not? Surprisingly, it was published soon with the challenging title: «The Pantry of Phosphorites is Still Locked». I felt guilty, like if I wrote a denunciation, took the garbage out of the kitchen. But why denunciation? I signed it with my name, right? The encouraging images from my favourite film “Communist» were sparkling in my mind and warmed up my own faith determination.
One day in despair I sent the desperate letter to Moscow, to Vadim, with all my doubts: «We surely can encourage young generation to serve their country. There are thousands of enthusiasts ready to sacrifice their present for future. But it turned out that there was no need in them due to many reasons, known to the decision makers. Why on earth «Komsomolskaya Pravda» raised up the bests in whole country? Thousands came, meanwhile hundreds would have been enough. Why they should live here as a working horses?
Vadim didn’t answered. Instead he offered the letter to “Komsomolskaya Pravda”. And insisted that it should be published. So what? Well, the letter was published! But the editor had no intention to discuss such issues and all doubts afterwards. The newspaper did not return to this topic any more. How many readers read it, how many of them responded? In fact, I put questions to the leadership of Komsomol and Party. But they kept silence also. Nobody supported this desperate splash of doubts and questions… And the rain washed away all the tracks …
The country slowly was moving into stagnation. I was glad that my American old buddies — Diana and Jim on the white-winged «Lithuania» would never read this story of Komsomol volunteers …
Step by step he left me, my Pavel Korchagin, my literature archetype, whose revolutionary spirit went down in the history. Red poppies withered away, petals of illusions were showered. Quietly, without fanfare, the brilliant boys and girls were about leaving Karatau, moving mostly nowhere. The Motherland was big enough to bear all of them. Where to go, buddies?
To resolve my doubts the correspondent of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” flew from Moscow to write a follow up story about Karatau. In a cotton short skirt she didn’t mind to show her tanned legs while sightseeing and visiting the construction site. In the evening, sitting down at the table in front of me and interviewing me she suddenly changed the subject. I felt under the table her soft, bar foot on a place that immediately hardened and ached with desire. Volodya, the engineer, with whom we usually played chess and talked about life and who invited us for late dinner, quickly comprehended the situation, made the bed for us and left.
— Are you always so ideological? — asked the correspondent, undressing busily. — They told me in the office. I did not believe.
— What about you? Do you believe like others in Moscow, in anything?”
We did not talk anymore. And I didn’t find anything relevant in her article to our local problems later. Nice girl.
But one day the First secretary of the City Party Committee, Pyotr Kachesov himself, caught me at the office:
— Come and see me tonight. Just home dinner. And talk.
He tossed me his home address. We sat at the kitchen. Finish with bottle of vodka. Smoked a pack of «Prima». Almost silently. Finally, with a sigh, he summed up the silence:
— Do not muddle the water, Igor. What do you want? They, upstairs will close the construction site because of your complains in the newspapers. Is that what you want? Or you think, that these revelations will make the difference? You better leave this town, that is my advice to you. You’re good, may be too good for our time being. I promise: we will build this town anyway. And this construction will serve the country. No blue cities and shining future, sorry. It is not the first time for me. You go to study somewhere. We will give you a good recommendation letter. Forgive old soldier.
And his voice trembled. Or it seemed to me? Years later, when I met by a chance a resident of those places he confessed that the Komsomol construction site together with the town itself had turned into dust. In the 90’s Karatau looked abandoned, the buildings remained empty, with broken windows. People lost their jobs and left. The sad old soldier did not keep his word …
Chapter 4. VGIK — Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography.
In the Central Committee the head of ideological department didn’t ask any questions. He wordlessly closed my business trip documents and signed the Recommendation letter to the VGIK. I never even dreamed about this world famous film institute. But I remembered the advice of Yury Gusev. The institute was founded in 1919 and became the oldest film school in the world, known as the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. Everybody knew the names associated with it: Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Mikhail Romm, Sergei Parajanov, Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovsky.
So I said: “VGIK!” And the miracle happened. The issue was resolved in seconds by the rector of VGIK Vitaly Groshev. I didn’t believe my ears:
— Do you have a higher education? It’s OK. O-o, you speak fluent English! So good, so good. You have two weeks before exams. Read some books on the history of the cinema, pass the exams and welcome to the postgraduate course. We just got an extra place in the sociology of cinema. Don’t you mind?
No, I didn’t! A week ago I considered myself a looser and didn’t even know where to go and what to do with my failed life.
Vadim seeing my open eyes encouraged me:
— Yes, you deserved it, the sailor! Get a new chance and keep going. Look around, you are in Moscow now.
And I looked around, staying at the staircases between third and second floor in VGIK building. And stoned with surprise. Sasha Lapshin, the member of the gymnasts team in Odessa approched me, smiling:
— What are you doing here, buddy? — He was no less surprised than me.
— And you? Are you a student?
— Yea, I’m on the script writing faculty.
— And I was just enrolled as post-graduate student. Sorry, who is this old woman with poisonous yellow wire hair?»
— Are you crazy? This is Khokhlova! She is about 90…
In the Odessa Sport School we started from awkward, thin-armed teenagers to became masters of sport in years. We flew than in different directions: he studied at the Institute of Physical Education, worked as a coach in a remote Siberian town, began writing short stories about his pupils, young gymnasts. And now we met here, in Moscow, in VGIK. It was a good sign of the destiny.
For two weeks the history of cinema I learned as a beautiful fairy tale, much easier than the course of the History of Communist Party. A new, amazing life commenced. Tall, straightened, grey-haired patriarch of Soviet cinema studies professor Nikolai Lebedev choose me as his student and assistant. I was already familiar with his classical book on the history of cinema. In 1921 he started as a journalist, then the editor of «Proletkino», then the film director, screenwriter, then rector of Theatre Institute GITIS and later rector of VGIK. It was he who gave me the right direction, indicating the sociological theme: “The Movie and The Viewer”. In other words it was the introduction to only recently forbidden sociology. The patriarch remembered the first steps of sociology that was banned in thirties as a capitalist “anti-science” and did his best to revive it now. He found the right pupil. Eventually I would never be a film critic. But as a scholar in sociology I probably had a chance…
I found out soon that the Komsomol played no role in this institute. Their hangouts were in the smoking rooms, in the dorms, in a stall with a mug of beer. They argued about the modern art, about holy eternal values, about Godar and Antonioni. And kept silence at the mass meetings and then usually watched the pirate copy of a new foreign movie. What was that? May be the way to survive in the country with dual thinking? I felt uncomfortable among all students — scriptwriters, directors, actors, cameramen. I had nothing to discuss with them, to show them, to e[press myself. Nothing yet. .
Who did you think I was for them? A successfully married Komsomol functionary who didn’t deserve even to step in. May be I was wrong. But the dean was usually very polite and looked friendly:
— How is your father in law today, Igor?
— What he is working on now? — and so forth…
Once very unexpected visitor came even to my home. It happened accurately amid my autumnal cold. A bell rang and I saw VGIK’s heartbreaker Sasha Stefanovich with a doll-like beautiful ballerina and actress Natasha Bohunova on the threshold with a cake in their hands. What a surprise!
— Hello, we come to visit our sick student-mate.
Frankly speaking I didn’t see this couple too often in VGIK. Sasha had the reputation of Don Juan and I envied his braveness and audacity. It’s so nice that we were friends. But I imagined that I wasn’t the main subject of his interest. Here he is, a tall blond handsome man, sitting on the edge of my bed, telling anecdotes, laughing and addressing to my wife. Was this the beginning of a friendship for life? But Stefanovich will soon turned his attention and charm on Alla Pugacheva and lost his interest in me and Natasha. He successfully married our famous diva and even made a movie “Woman who sings”. Later he moved to France, country that matched his temper and personality.
My first real friend there became Oleg Vidov, already famous and successful movie star. Friendship started unexpectedly and all of a sudden. Once Oleg, already Prince Gvidon, Prince Habgard, the Headless Horseman came up to me and invited to his wedding:
— Listen, I need some celebrities to my wedding. Come to Beijing with your wife. Find a special room on the third floor. No staircases, only an internal elevator.
— OK, Oleg. My wife would be happy, I guess.
— Come at 8 pm. Forget about gifts. Just come!
We were late of course. The elevator doors opened directly into a hall with a long table in the centre with many drop dead faces. People’s Artist Matveev stopped in mid-sentence and waited impatiently till we sat down. Then he continued his toast — long quote from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. Next to me we saw a heavy middle-aged lady.
— Galina Brezhneva!- Somebody whispered at my ear. Galina had already took a few glasses of wine and her eyes shone. When I toasted the bride and groom she leaned to me:
— I like your speech. Oleg told me you are smart”.
— Let’s keep it only between us! — was my quick answer.
But before I continued someone’s caring hands took the General Secretary’s daughter away from me.
Elegant, sharp-eyed, with short dark hair, Natalia Fedotova the bride later became close to my Natasha. Our families got together for any occasion. A year later Oleg looked tired and disappointed. He confessed: his wife persisted that he had to make money by singing and chatting to his fans from stage. She wanted him to write poems and sing them like Vysotsky or Bulat Okudjava. Their marriage wasn’t happy. They divorced soon after their son Slava was born. They parted with scandals, she didn’t allow Oleg to see his son. She wove about him all sorts of gossip. After this divorce Oleg who got a lot of invitations to act abroad was restrained and retained at home. He was invited to Yugoslavia, where he immediately got new roles in several films. KGB ordered him to come back, but instead Oleg crossed the border to Austria and further to Italy. His fate was waiting for him there in face of Joan Burstin, American journalist who took him to America. Our friendship will last many years till his tragic death in Los-Angeles at the age of 73. He will find peace at the “Hollywood forever” cemetery in 2017…
Approaching the front door of VGIK I usually stared with pleasure at the world-famous signboard, proudly took out a red student ID-card and boastfully looked around. Did everyone see where this person go? But inside, the confidence disappeared. Something was missed for full happiness. Who, in fact, I was there? Definitely not one of them. Dammit, I was here on a note! I couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance and act, never wrote a story or a script. I had to do something outstanding to get recognition, to deserve their attention. Silently, without looking around I was sneaking to the viewing room to watch the world movie classics. Sometimes I watched three-four films a day. I wrote short notes to remember the names, the films, their plots, the directors and writers. Only with time my notes reflected my opinion. Little by little the quantity turned into quality.
Professor Lebedev invited me as his assistant to lead his seminar «Cinema and the viewer». His method of teaching was too academical from my stand. Students had to fix every word of his in their notebooks. May be it made sense: the subject was rather new by the time and his memoirs about the 30’s were the only source of knowledge. We discussed “scissors of taste” — distinction between critic’s and public opinion, analysed statistics of the box office hidden from the public in the Goskino bulletin “only for restricted use” and criticized so called “mediocre” movies that completely failed in box office. This seminar soon changed its name to «Sociology of Cinema».
Professor Lebedev gathered around himself enthusiasts of sociological approach to cinematography from all parts of the Soviet Union. He also had the strength and authority to convene the first conference «Cinema and the audience» after the 30 years of ignorance. I assisted him doing all logistic, correspondence and gathering theses. To my surprise for the first time I encountered the hidden resistance of the political system. Regardless to the respected names like professor Boris Meilakh from Leningrad, professor Lev Kogan from Sverdlovsk, world known structuralist Yuri Lotman from Tartu the theses were censored. It was required for some reason to coordinate the texts with the chairman of the Film Critic Section of the Filmmakers Union Alexander Novogrudsky. The experienced Party functioned continued to delay the conference month by month. He responded to us, impatient, with a soft fatherly smile:
— Where are you rushing, guys? Are you really looking for troubles?
I had no idea that we were teasing the system with our sociological discoveries.
— What about the differentiation of the mass audience, Igor? — looked at me reproachfully Novogrudsky. — Didn’t you notice, that we were already a whole historical integrity of Soviet people?
— Yes, but the facts…
— Forget facts, old man!
Finally the conference was successfully held. We even managed to print the most valuable materials on printers in the number of one hundred copies. As to me my first sociological essay appeared in the VGIK Press bulletin. Audience research and interviews at the exits form cinemas became popular. The gap between my reputation as the Komsomol nominee and the graduate student and teaching assistant gradually filled up. In three years I was enrolled in a position of part-time assistance professor.
Teaching became more and more captivating for me since I found the theme — a narrow but important niche in film criticism. Sociological data showed last years decline in the box office of Soviet films and growing interest to Western films. And the main reason, as I suspected, was not an artistic cinema language or professional quality but the contest and meaning. The explanation given by the official analysts was very simple: the mass audience was not enough educated to understand the art films, special courses in film estatics should be added to the middle school education. But Soviet people these days stubbornly prefered comedies and melodramas, action and suspense movies. They wanted to be entertained, not indoctrinated. Politburo showed its concern regarding low efficiency of ideological propaganda movies. Something has been changed in our life and in the public mood…
In the 70’s the Goskino Science-Research Institute of Cinematography was assigned to explain the situation. Authorities ordered sociological studies and were afraid of their conclusions. It was evident that the case was not only in the invasion of television. Indian melodramas became even more successful then American westerns. The big secret of official statistics was the fact that overall box office of 150 Soviet films that were produced annually, made less then 10 American films. I dug out books and articles, analyzed the box office reports, conducted the field research with my students. We met filmgoers at the cinema theaters and distributed our questionary. Then we had discussion based on what we learned from their answers.
On one side of the spectrum of public preferences was unprecedented success of «Amphibian Man», romantic love story based on the novel of the famous Soviet writer. On the other side — the films of a social criticisms with the focus on individual values. They were created during the short era of the Thaw and later in spite of the efforts of Party censorship.
«Zastava Ilyich», «Three days of Viktor Chernyshev», «Wings», «Holiday in September», «Flights in a dream and in reality», «Long seeing off», «Plumbum», «Rodnya», «Stalker» and «Solaris» were widely acclaimed by film critics, but unfortunately had no response in the mass audience.
Why? We also talked about this phenomena at the seminar. Between these two extremes existed the bulk of the annual repertoire, films that were supported and initiated by the Goskino. They were named by the press “films of the gray zone”.
The students gradually came to understanding that time of Party propaganda in film industry was over. The gap between officialdom and real life widened. As a result the dual thinking — private at the kitchen with the bottle of vodka and publicly at the meetings — two types of films became the subject of our discussion: very popular entertaining movies (Western and some Soviet ones) and socially actual films which were widely acclaimed by the critics and awarded at the international festivals. The last were the subject of the severe censorship often doomed to wait their release «on the shelf» for years.
I met my students only four hours a week, but to be ready for the class I had to read in Russian and in English, to watch classical and new films in the VGIK archive, to write and type my notes and to learn ten times more then I was planning to address the students. Not only I had to know more, I should bring them my own discoveries and faith. So my home work was very intensive and exciting. I dealt with allegories and subtexts, unclipped thoughts and ideas. It was risky game, by the way: we couldn’t speak freely, without inner censor in our mind. It seemed that we did not have forbidden topics, but somewhere there was a borderline of what was allowed to say, what wasn’t. It was invisible line, the border where to stop. I liked to poured oil on the fire: — You guys, find your way to say whatever you had to say as an artists! Yes, you were not dissidents. But if you step over — you become one. You will be punished, dismissed, thrown out, deported, imprisoned. If you keep your mouth shut — it will be even worse: you die as an artist.
A hard dilemma for all of them. My goal was to support the gifted artists in their eternal mission: to pull a heavy barge of mass consciousness loaded to the top with ideological trash and phobias to the fresh sources of universal humanistic values… without any hope for changes…
Sincerity and caution were the two poles between which I hided my own struggle with previous faith in communism and searching of a new way to nowhere. The students guessed something about this struggle in my mind and responded with their own openness and gratitude. In a few years I got additional seminar already on the Film directors faculty. We discussed there something different — a foreign cinema, mostly American in their socio-political context. VGIK had very rich movie memorabilia and we watched classics like “The Graduate”, «Easy Rider», «Coming Home», «Mean Streets», «Laughing Policeman», “Death Wish”, “Rocky”, “Rambo”. And we were learning to see American political and cultural reality through the prism of these pictures. That was how we together got information of the turbulent 60’s in America.
Every day I was fishing in the ocean of printed words in the liberal oriented magazines like «New World», “Foreign Literature” and «Youth», hunting for something foreign like «Realism without Shores» by Roger Garaudy or forbidden Pasternak’s «Doctor Zhivago» or «Otherworldly Meetings» by Lev Ginzburg. By such random reading I compensated the absence of systemic education in the past. I dug out the forbidden truth from the thousands of crafty pages as a raisin in a roll to overcome my ideological disability, this deliberate, trained illiteracy. Time has come to understand something in the past of my country and its vague future.
But there was still a damned barrier, which I could not cross for a long time. I was convinced that our socialism without private property was the the best, being free from the greed, from consumerism and hunting for profit.
I still believed that the guilt for those dark bloody spots in our history laid on the particular human beings, politicians, not on the system itself. Now I was close to reject the system as vicious, as subject not to repair. I hadn’t enough courage to make this step. To much to loose… Sometimes I felt destroyed inside: no faith, no future. And I was not the only one who stopped in front of this precipice, I guessed …
The thought came from Leo Ginzburg, a poet and an interpreter, who described his meetings with the rulers of the Third Reich in Germany in 60th: Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess, and Eva’s sister Elsa Brown. Ginzburg did not accused people, but ideas that subordinated to themselves the minds of fully educated Europeans. And they degenerated into monsters, moral monsters. Direct parallels were evident. But the magazine “Communist» crushed the author: «Instead of digging in the filthy underwear of fascists, the writer would have better shown the glorious march of a Soviet soldier from Moscow to Berlin».
I was already on the writer’s the side. Something was happening as if beside me, in the depths of consciousness, like an iceberg, the loyalty to this Party and to the government was melting in me.
While rereading Lenin’s notes I asked myself, how it was possible to applaud to these for example: «The scientific concept of dictatorship means nothing other than unlimited, unrestrained violence, no laws, absolute no rules, directly on terror resting power». Our dear Lenin justified a mass terror against “people enemies” — innocent “bourgeois”, “kulaks”, “Cossacks”, “foreign spies” and “traitors”. I had already read the «Chivingur» by Andrey Platonov, Zamiatin’s anti-utopia «We» written in 1924 and Orwell’s anti-utopia «1984»… Yes, I was born after that incredible terrible past. What should I do with this ruthless knowledge? Trying to separate myself from this merciless reality I slowly and inevitably drifted toward internal emigration …
In the same time I continued working on my dissertation grew out of the VGIK sociological seminar and kept contemplating with my students… My thesis was about the film funs clubs which were reborn in the 60s and united the most politically responsible and advanced audience. Instinctively I felt some connections with these people in our common efforts to comprehend the past and shape the future.
The work was almost done when student unrest happened in Poland. By secret decision of the Central Committee all activity outside the Komsomol membership was immediately declared a political infection. Cinema clubs, of course, too. My topic was also automatically rejected and closed. Almost three years of work turned to be useless. Only my seminar and my good relations with the students remained valuable and important.
Almost in half a century, a way later, I’ll get a letter in Los Angeles from Moscow:
«Yes, Igor Evgenevich, I’m the same Arkadyev. It’s bitter to hear the wording «thrown out as useless», and of course, you know better, it’s your feelings, but even if I would be your only pupil, full of gratitude to you, then your bitterness has softening shades. Because you (including you) patiently molded me, a provincial boy — a fool, a creature able to distinguish between black and white and answer for one’s own words and deeds, and you did it with human delicacy and extremely rare teaching skills. Once again, thank you. »
The fact that such words were said not at a funeral service was worth a lot…
A FAMILY. UNDER THE SHADOW OF SOMEBODY OTHER’S FAME
Now, perhaps, it’s time to tell about the crucial changes in my life. It started actually a couples of years ago, when Valery Tsymbal from the circle of our Odessa Palace of Students, the Leningrad Academy of Arts student took me to that house. I lived at that time in Moscow hotel «Youth» completing buying and packing books, art supplies, photo and film equipment for Karatau. On the name of Central Committee we contracted the Conservatory, the VGIK, the library institute to send art groups of students to perform for miners.
— Let’s go with Alla to her old friend. It will be fan and we’ll have a good drink.
This brisk mocking girl I met a few years ago at the student party with Valery when my «Lugansk» returned from Cuba to St. Petersburg. She was very friendly cheerful and attractive girl I may say. It was funny that I even did not notice how the cut to suit, which I carried to the tailor, quickly went to her.
— It would be fantastic skirt I dreamed about! — she exclaimed.
So I continued to wear the marine outfit for a long time after I came ashore and became a ordinary civilian.
Her girlfriend Natasha — a slender, tanned, artist or movie actress, met us with warm greetings addressed mostly to Alla. Then we proceeded through the dark large apartment to her room at the end of the long corridor with rooms on both sides. The girls immediately started chirping and giggling leaving us with the bottles of French vine and Cognac. Valery and I were sipping silently. To include us in their chatting, the mocking mistress jokingly sat down on my knees, holding a glass and continuing an unfinished story about her summer holidays in Sochi.
My face flashed, I couldn’t say a word. My hands.. I didn’t know where to put them. Her knees were round and smooth, here they were, but it was a decent house, right? It seemed that she made fun of my confusion. Finally she turned her smiling face to me:
— Is it true that you have been around the world?
— Yes, you can say that.
Cautiously I mentioned Singapore, where the sun didn’t cast shadows. They listened. So the story about the winter in Brazil followed. I recalled barefooted boys running in fur jackets to the naked body, the hospitable two guys in Sao Paulo who pulled out of my pocket a wallet with currency for a year, patting me on the back. They listened. I continued depicting the flying fish falling dawn from the sky to the hot deck, where we used to pick them up and made the scattered stuffed animals. The peak of my performance was a horrifying episode about the silent power of the tsunami, when the ocean suddenly stands upright before you, closing the sky and covering, as though swallowing any size of the ship… I finished with a romantic view of the Southern Cross in a black carpet of the southern night and incessant rumble of diesel engines above my resting body… Days, weeks, years in the endless oceans, and the friends who never returned from a long haul …
Next day I left to Karatau. A year passed like a wild goat in the Kazakh steppes. I flew in, flew off, chatted with her on the phone. Twice I took her to a cafe on Gorky Street. We were sitting in a dark corner on the second floor, wine, ice cream … I did not even hold her graceful hand. I described her the steppes in red poppies. I dreamed to take her with me.
— You will paint a steppe, you would teach Kazakhs painting.
She was laughing:
— Where did you come from, an alien?
When I became a VGIK student, I dialed her number. She picked up the phone:
— I have tickets to the International Film Festival.The film «Bridge over the River Kwai». Let’s go to? So we started dating. Unbelievable: she was able to get tickets to the most prestigious theatre Taganka. Her acquaintances looked back at us: no one had ever seen her with the sailor in uniform. And one day she said something as simple as if about a trifle:
— Do not go away, stay here, — she meant to her room. — All the same parents are not in. They are in Japan for a whole month. As to Polya… she already knows everything.
Polia, small old woman was her her nanny, taken in this house since the pre-war years. I didn’t see her parents yet, but by that time I already knew that her father was a famous composer, the head of the Composer’s Union. And she herself was a girlfriend of the arrogant brother of Maya Plisetskaya Azary, who worked at Cuba Ballet Theatre, among her friends were Boris Maklyarsky, the son of the famous screenwriter, the popular poet Igor Volgin.
We never confessed in love, neither then nor later was not a word said. When I tried to somehow clumsily express my feelings with a basket of flowers with a romantic note, they ridiculed me. Who dislocated her from sentiments? I didn’t know. Why did she choose a provincial stranger who didn’t belong to her inner circle, who was surprised by the things that nobody cared about for a long time? Some kind of chemistry beyond reason. But she made her choice. Why she, not me? Probably I didn’t dare. They said Andron Konchalovsky could call from Moscow to Oslo and say movie star Liv Ullmann:
— I’m a Russian director, I want to meet with you.
But who am I? Natasha didn’t look like Andron, but she has the same confidence:
— I’m Khrennikov’s daughter and I can afford marriage for love,» she said. Who would argue?
She called her parents in Japan:
— Daddy, I’m getting married. You better come back soon.
I also called mine in Odessa. Mother almost fainted in response:
— Are you kidding or get nuts?!
Parents returned, and she still got from her mother. I did not know what to do with shame. But her father closed the door of his study and said:
— Do not pay attention. Clara is such a person. For me the main thing is that Natasha loves you. So, let it be.
Once, when we were alone at home, Natasha took me by her hand, sat me in the living room, put down the plate:
— Listen. This is «Like a nightingale about a rose.» Daddy’s love song.
I listened to the sweetest melody: «My star, my beauty, you are the best of women …» and at that moment I the thought stroke my mind: what if she was telling something important about her father’s music. To her, far from sentimental, it was probably easier, more convenient and weighty to say about her feelings. This very moment connected us for many years. We were 25 and we were born the same year year, same month and same day…
Turning around as if memorizing these first years in Moscow, exiting years on unfamiliar path, where fate has thrown me at my 25, I recall my feelings. Moscow, VGIK, Natasha — these new impressions were definitely stronger than those of foreign cruises, exotic and beautiful south cities. They were like museums after which we always returned home. Now Moscow was my home. Supposed to be my home. It was hard to get used to this thought. Naturally, VGIK and the family of famous composer could not suddenly become my home. To my home, if I would have any, could not come the great, calmly carrying its glory of the world’s first singer Maria Kalas, or mocking and sharp-tongued legendary Mstislav Rostropovich with haughty beauty Galina Vishnevskaya.
Could not sit at my table Lina Ivanovna, the slim, mobile, long-suffering widow of the composer Prokofiev. In this house she was a member of the family. When Lina returned from detention, Tikhon applied to the Government for a pension and granted her an apartment from the funds of the Composers Union. Prokofiev was his idol, and he personally considered taking care of his widow as his duty. Once putting two chairs next to each other, she leaned on them with her thin straight hands and lifted the slender legs in a right angle:
— Can you do that, young man?
She’s 70 with GULAG behind her, I was barely 30 and I was a gymnast. She liked my angle. She generally liked young people. And it helped me to feel more confident and comfortable in this environment.
One of the first who friendly paid attention to the new person in the Khrennikovs’ house was the author of the famous song «Let the Sun Always Be» Arkady Ostrovsky. A musician, who used to play in restaurants and then in the Utyosov’s Jazz Band, he remained open and available for all his life. He felt my embarrassment and encouragement:
— Why should you fill sorry? We are not the monsters nor the ministers! We are crooks, normal people. Take it easy, buddy!
On the day of the wedding, we happened to meet at Eliseevskoe. Arkady saw me there, approached and advised what kind ham my future father in law loved. He patted me as if blessing for a new life:
— Don’t be shy, sailor, everything will be fine!»
To my great chagrin, Arkady Ilyich, will die in the Sochi hospital in a few short years. He will enter the sea cheerful and carefree, will get the stroke of ulcers with heavy bleeding in the water and doctors will not be able to save him. I will keep warm memories about him all my life.
Another friendly and, it seemed, sympathetic to me in this house was Leonid Kogan. A small, slightly stooped, he always smiled first. Eyes were laughing and shining. With a violin, with his wife Lisa and two lovely children, Nina and Pavlik never apart, they sat at the table all together. A violinIn in a black worn case. Live Guarneri, however. I loved listening to his childishly enthusiastic stories about how cool it was to drive himself at the wheel across Europe to Rome for three days for the sake of one concert. Yes, he was allowed to travel to Rome, Paris, Boston, Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo. Citizen of the world. His imagination was struck by freedom — he saw the world as his home and very much cherished this privilege. And he was afraid all his life that someone somehow without any reason might deprive him of this happiness.
From all over the world he was carrying home new smart devices — quadraphony, home movie theater, dish wash, microwave, even a new Mercedes. He had the most intelligent house in Moscow. But every morning he started with music. Plying for hours. Nobody saw this heavy work. It was really funny: all family did the same — Nina had a piano, Pavel had a violin. How, for God sake, they managed to live together in one Soviet apartment? Sharps, flat, Paganini, Mozart, Prokofiev, Khrennikov …
New Year’s Eve we always spent at their dacha in Arkhangelsk. Snow crunches under the tires, we drive in. A long table, from wall to wall, densely packed with salads, ham, caviar, other delicacies. The guests were already sitting at the table. Usual surprise — a New Year’s horror story from the family friend — the Deputy Minister of Justice of the USSR Nikolai Osetrov. He masterfully narrated the blood-chilling stories of crimes that never appeared in newspapers. His stories usually finished just at midnight. Then — a home theater with the French film starring Simone Signori and Yves Montana, the recent gift of a star couple.
But suddenly and unpredictably, the December night of 1982 has come. Lisa’s choked voice by phone was mixed with tears:
— Tikhon, Lenya … get lost …his body was found somewhere in the station … between Moscow and Klin … what to do? … help …help!
Tikhon looked at me. I nodded, quickly get dressed and rushed in the darkness. It was about 3 am, when I stopped in the dark at a foul station. A blinded lamp without a plafond illuminated a small frail body, pulled by someone from the car on a stone bench. Black trousers were unbuttoned, a white shirt was torn to the breast, already cold hands with thin nervous fingers hung along the left side of his motionless body, somehow apart from it. Not a soul around. Frozen face in agony. Bum? Beggar? Great musician. Under the bench I saw a black case. The Guarneri.
I knew him and loved him, the great violinist Leonid Kogan.
Another meaningful death happened soon. I was watching the ballet «Macbeth» in Bolshoi that night. Its author, sixty-year-old composer Kirill Molchanov, tall, intelligent gentleman with a clever eyes was satting as always in the director’s box. There, behind a heavy burgundy veil that separated the audience from the box, located almost on the stage, in its dark depth, he suddenly clutched at his heart, held back a groan, so as not to frighten the dancers and died. Beautiful death. But anyway, the death. Tragedy. His wife, the star of Bolshoi Nina Timofeev was dancing Lady Macbeth this night. She learned the tragic news during intermission, gasped, fall down in a chair, sipped some water and returned to dance. The ballet continued, as if nothing had happened. None of us in the theatre that evening didn’t know what happened behind the scenes.
Art requires sacrifice, I agree. But not as it happened that night in Bolshoi. The present had rights to know the real price of their tickets today. And this performance would have remained in their souls for life, as a farewell to a great artist, as a feat of his wife, before their very eyes has already taken upon himself the cross of loss. But in our life the criteria of good and bad, right and wrong have long been knocked down.
Then, on the threshold of my metropolitan life, I had no idea what kind of life this would be in the world of sparkling stars, and for some reason was preparing to compete with them, viewing them close to them with an open but silent mouth. Accustomed to leading, arguing, discussing various acute social and political topics among the same hot and naive goals that he himself carelessly wore, here in the family and in its surroundings, I once again, as in VGIK, faced a completely different environment.
But if the students were still making noise about different creative problems, then even the echoes of drunken arguments did not come. The fact that the duality of consciousness can reach such depth that my own voice is no longer heard in the kitchen, I will not soon understand. I looked at these people, whom the whole country knew and loved for their creativity, listened to their every word, looking in their private lives, in informal conversations between themselves and in the thoughts, lost at the table, at the table, answers to their questions. Also did not find.
He himself was silent, realizing all the indecency and tactlessness of those doubts and thoughts that had taken us there, at the campfire in the Kazakh steppes, in Odessa on a sitting in the Palace of Students, at the headquarters of the operatry, where they conducted moralizing conversations with young farthers and juvenile prostitutes. Somehow it turned out that here they do not think about it. Or they think, but do not speak. And if they do not say and do not think, then what do they write to us — write, draw, shoot and play?
I wanted to understand the mystery of those who are marked by God’s gift, to see what is in their hearts, how the private life of the artist and his creativity merge, and in general, where does it come from, creativity, and whether it is possible to create by order, not from oneself, moving away from the soul, and than then this soul is filled. I even bothered to THX, until he remembered somehow at the table a funny story. Once in the house of creativity during dinner to Shostakovich his admirer sat down and asked, eating with the eyes of his idol:
— Dear Dmitry Dmitrievich, open up, well, how do you manage to write such brilliant music? Shostakovich stopped the spoon at his mouth and answered unperturbedly:
— Now. I will open the door and open it.
Talent — like money, said Sholom Aleichem, — either he is or he is not.
Not true. It is not that simple. To understand whether he is, we must try. Maybe there is, but modest. And not where you expect it. Oh, if not at all, you must at least learn to live with a talent nearby, communicate, be at least accepted, if not initiated. Special people are all the same, thin and invisible between them and all the rest of humanity, the audience, listeners, readers of their works, but it is, and they are first of all felt by themselves. The main thing is not to stop them from looking at us, cleaning and uplifting it. No one is master over them, no authority, no crowd. And I say to myself: study, son, while close.
The first lesson, however, was taught by Natasha. I saw how I looked at the pretty girl behind the counter with the usual gaze, and then — just once! — and, like a cat, nail on the cheek: do not stare! I blushed, was silent guilty, and the bloody strips remained, reminding me whose property I now own. Happy marriage? Probably. After all, my mother-in-law said:
«You won a lucky lottery ticket, man.»
It’s clear what they think of me. Well, let’s see who won. And whose place I took. While studying greedily, literally choked with knowledge, watched sometimes four films a day. I swallowed any piece, like a hungry dog, without chewing. He was making up lost time. TNH was interested in my first articles in Vgikov’s collections. He polistal somehow, returned:
«Do not write smart, just write.» If not a fool, it will work out.