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“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.

Moscow-Los-Angeles, 2017

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 on the Wheels…..….…..……….….……….397
7.Russian Government: Love and Hate…….…………..…………………439

CONCLUSION. Betrayal of Democracy…….…………….…………………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 exiting 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 is still — 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 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 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 modernization of Russia. I want to say thank you, thank you all.

Part I. Before … For socialism with a human face

Chapter 1.
Odessa on the threshold of the 60s: the children of the Khrushchev thaw.

Yes, the city that is labeled 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!”
“Why, mom?”
“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?”
Fish out of water…
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 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 — we support Valery Tsymbal, Polytechnic University student who fell in love with woman who was almost twenty years older. Charming and brilliant artist Zoya Ivnitskaya opened the art studio in our Student Palace of Culture. She taught to express our feelings with the pencil and paints freely and artistically. And was bestowed with this unusual love. Valery’s parents, a party functionaries in our city, were 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. Valery was an artist in some way: he masterly sewed pants for himself. And they are really sitting on his slim boyish figure. 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 fragile Ira Makarova. Sublime graduate of the Leningrad Art Academy, she watered the Soviet officialdom with inventive obscenities and inimitable sarcasm mocked my komsomol activity. But the reward was for some reason, the nickname she gave me: Benvenuto Cellini, the sculptor, jeweler and rowdy Renaissance. By my birth day Ira presented her poem written in Homeric hexameter on a scroll of yellow construction paper. There, she sent me to the epoch where, in her opinion, was my place — in the Renaissance. She knew better…
Ira was surrounded by 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 presented in Moscow art saloons. Sasha Onufriev was the disobedient son of the member of Soviet Art Academy. Among them was another friend of mine Lev Mak… I felt that somewhere near me existed unusual and dangerous world even for a time of thaw. I was drawn to these people, like a butterfly to the flame of a candle. Mak, a bodybuilder, goof and philosophising poet spited at Komsomol. He never entered into any political disputes, just read his mysterious lines: «… and quietly smoke in the opponent’s soul vent…”. 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:
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,
hungry, half-dressed,
their eyes are full of sunset,
their hearts are full of dawn.
They were singing the desert,
lightning flash,
stars burn on them,
hoarse shout them birds:
that the world will remain the same,
Yes, remain the same,
blinding snow,
and it is doubtful gentle,
the world will be a liar,
the world will remain forever,
perhaps understandable,
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 decided to leave to Leningrad. Became friends with Joseph Brodsky. In St. Petersburg, he was hired on an expedition to Pamir to carry heavy bales. Remember? He was pitching bumpy. No wonder: he was practicing day and night with heavy metal hammer in a vacant lot behind our school. Once expedition was blocked in the mountains in a snow blockage. Two days he warmed with his huge mass the skinny academic’s body and dug by hands at the snow. The expedition was saved. Upon return the saved enrolled Lev into his Oceanography faculty and took him to the world marine expedition. 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 was drafted to the army. His squad went to look at him: he lifted the rod 265 pounds just 120 times! Unbelievable.
After army he married our Ira Makarova and kept writing the poems, drove off to Moscow to the High Courses for screenwriters. Tarkovsky welcomed him to his group after reading his scripts. Back in Odessa, he worked as an assistant director to Stanislav Govorukhin, who was shooting at the moment the criminal drama doomed to be a hit serial with Vladimir Vysotsky, rising star. One day he was summoned to the KGB and was expelled from the country as a antiSoviet dissident. He divorced with Irina and exposed.
In New York he worked as a taxi driver, learning language. Then got a job as engineer in the oil company. He married, got two more kids, made some money as realtor, bought a house at Agura Hills. After second divorce the house with a pond beneath the balcony was sold. He returned to poetry. Alone. Proud. I helped him to publish his book in Russia. He claimed that he was happy.
And Irina, Ira, well … kids have grown up, intermarried. So she got American grandchildren, insisted that they should know Russian, culture and history. She knew how to keep the family, and family members loved her. She lived thirty years in the same place at the Fountain street, Los-Angeles near the Russian church, which had sheltered her many years ago. With her boyfriend from Lenjngrad, 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. There, in that home she will peacefully pass away at 77 and local priest will pray for her. God rest her soul, our Ira …
Two years of my komsomol job was enough for me. I was fed up with what I learned about government 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 threw me out of his huge office in the building near the rail station. I staggered to it directly from the train, with a fiber suitcase and knitted pants with blisters on my knees. Hurry happily to share my impressions and thoughts after assignment to Dnipropetrovsk, where I picked up something new for ourselves. I was craving to tell the him how and what we planning to do in our City Students Centre, to get his opinion and advice.
And he was there sitting in the depths of his immense desk with phones. 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, comprehending spoken until the blood flooded the face and neck. Insulted without any guilt, pissed off and depressed, I didn’t know what to say. And quietly left, backwards, closing the heavy door behind, not daring to look at his motionless secretary. The humiliation almost killed me. My soul stood frozen long time after this visit. But the naive builder of communism I still believed in a shining future. And I’ll work for this future recklessly passing by plenums and congresses, sometimes with this transcendental feelings of Brodsky’s pilgrims…
But two years in the Odessa Komsomol seemed enough for me. The cynicism to a handful of parasites, created their own island of abundance in the sea of universal needs and dull obedience was unbearable. Now I have to digest my unique experience from the safe distance. I didn’t know yet about bitter conclusion 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, say “yes” when you want to say “now”. Strange world. Beltyukov, who hired me two with something years ago, signed the resignation without saying a word. I handed over my magical red ID card and recalled last time how this magic ID helped me in different situations. It was in Moscow, on Zubovsky blvd, where my sister had sheltered me for a few days of business trips. From this dilapidated wooden structure, the police took me for beating up her jealous husband. I did not beat him, of course. Just 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, tory 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 changed. The police car drove me back, the police apologised to my sister and put her husband into the cell. An irresistible force of power.
From now on, my fate would be in the rattling diesels, the engine room in the middle of nowhere in the oceans. From the cruiser «Lithuania» that smelled of hot oil below the passenger’s desks, the crew peered with astonishment and incomprehensible anguish inaccessible and always for some reason sunny and warm foreign harbours and seaports. According the schedule we sailed at night, stand 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, some commissars liked to walk along the deck with a hunting rifle. Just in case. On leave after the watch by groups of five 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 we usually managed to hide some deficit for sale back at home. If you are smart enough, you can make the annual income for a short two-week navigation. Sailors with exit visas were wealthy people in Odessa.
Our passenger liners were a piece of foreign country as well. Luxury lounges, 24/7 night bars, swimming pools, sauna, music and dancing, and long-legged girls in swimsuits on upper deck. Our boat of German construction 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.
Summer at the Mediterranean was extremely hot. We were dying in the tiny cabins without air conditioning. We slept wrapped up in the sheets soaked under the tap. I had shifts avery eight hours. Day by day, night by night. The habit to jump off the bed at 4 a.m. stuck to me for years. And non stop entertainment between the watches. Bars, drinks, music, concerts, dances, romantic acquaintances. Every two weeks the new group of tourists came on board and fiesta with the new ones continued. It was nice for one summer. But month by month, years by years? Is this 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 thought.
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. Continuous automation 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 — a real resort, but no tourists any more around, no drinks and dances. I would see the difference in a while…
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. Two months was enough to get bored with Japanese who didn’t speak to you nor showed their interest in you. And you didn’t understand what they talk about you and had no idea what think of you. In cafes and eateries, however, was heard American rock. It seemed that no one here remembered about Hiroshima. Who knows, may be the scars and wounds in the Land of the Rising Sun heal quickly.
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.
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. That was right. The broken neck was guaranteed. We played table tennis on the upper deck. Valery Borisov, the second mate, boasted:
“Look, how the officers are rubbing” — and showed rolls of soft, gentle toilet three-layer tissue.
“Come on, I’ll give you a fray.”
We played table tennis. Rolls pass to me. In general, we lived amicably and cheerfully.
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, we carry our saved salary in dollars to Singapore, they say, the main bazaar. Singapore — a city without a shadow and heat for forty. But the ship radio caught an emergency message: President Kennedy was killed in America. The murderer, a Communist who worked in the USSR, was arrested. Our tanker was detained at the roadstead, the master with his mates were summoned to the local authorities. We heard terrible things about Singapore prison.
While standing in the roadstead, we were attacked by the famous Malay-Bazaar dealers and retailers. Dozens of kayaks loaded with consumer goods were sucked into the sides of the ship. Silently they cling to the shipboard like monkeys with their hooks, the dark-skinned, agile and quick-quick climbers climbed the scaffolding onto the deck and quickly pull the bales of goods with the same hooks. Without saying a word they pulled out all different stuff like swimming trunks, T-shirts, shirts, jeans, motley women’s blouses, shoes.
The shameless Malay handed me a deck of cards:
«Go,» he said, «to the toilet, you’ll see!»
It was a pack of pornography, the stuff which I never saw before. But I was distracted by something more astonishing: the beautiful girls already climbed the ladder — alive, smiling youth of the planet. They were moving, playing with their hips and smiling at our greedy eyes. I stood almost frozen with the open mouth.
“Can I use the rest room, sir, in your cabin?» addressed to me a long-legged, open love being. Light olive eyes look right into the soul. But fear and horror paralysed the young warrior. To me? In my cabin? What should I do? I was never … abroad … with a stranger … 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, all of them showing what we lost.
“Russian onanist!” — I have already heard these offensive words from European prostitutes in the narrow Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea. Other ships were usually more hospitable then Soviets.
The ship was released, replenished supplies of provisions, the watchmen raised anchors, and «Lugansk» headed for South America. The engine room at this ship was equipped with the new, modern mechanisms, with air conditioning nourishes grateful lungs. The dry, clean, fresh after the shower body suntanned on the upper deck near the pool longing for gym and workout. Atlantic mild, breezeless weather, a glass of Riesling after lunch and plenty of time to contemplate about the meaning and essence of life …
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, under the rumble of diesel engines, I heard on the radio Khrushchev’s speech calling for general and complete disarmament. And again the worm of doubts moved somewhere inside me: the real life, exited and meaningful life was somewhere far away. Who we were here, lost in the southern latitudes? We drove, we transported crude oil. I lay with my head thrown 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 among the shimmering stars. Where are you, my destiny? I’m standing on the guardhouse, and anger analyses. Why the devil was he born?
Brazil opened to us with the breaking news next morning. We were robbed at night when the ship was waiting the permission to dock at the harbour of Santos. While pumping oil into a small local tanker, the nimble Brazilians climbed onto our rescue motorboats and stole all provision. Okay, we were warned. There must be plenty of thieves in this country. Breathe this oily air, smelling of coffee beans, make a wish. We came to the port by a narrow strait through some swamps, moored among the same tankers, dry cargo ships. The first batch of the crew free of watch has already descended to the shore.
Not for me. I am working in the open windows of giant cylinders in their still not cooled womb with an iron scraper. I have to strip off the fat black deposits on their walls. In a quilted jacket, with a clapped hanger, with a lantern on the belt and a rope on my ankle, I dive into the heat. Rope, this is to get it out if you lose consciousness. You can last there in the heat three minutes, no more. Then out and dip your head in a bucket of water. And go back.
Well, I am taking shower already. Soap didn’t сlean oily soot, only a caustic works. But after using it a head hair comes out. Anyway I am washed already ready to go to meet this country of dreams with black rims around my eyes. One of our group of five was Vasya, ship cook, a salted sailor. He led us directly to the best place in town — to buy alcohol. He meant a pure spirit. He knew where to buy — in the pharmacy. Where else? There it price is cheaper than sunflower seeds. The owner found a dusty bottle somewhere on the top. The ladder was brought for this purpose and he crawled under the ceiling.
“Here you are, sirs!”
Vasya took the bottle and asked the owner for a glass.
“Are you going to drink it? You sure? We’re wiping and cleaning our horses with this staff.»
“Tell him to relax and bring the glass” — Vasiliy addressed to me the only interpreter in our group. The owner was shocked. He disappeared for a few minutes and came back with his whole family to see how «these people» drink “this solution”. Vasya took the glass, 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!”
“And me too!” — the whole group trusted Vasya.
The astonished family with two beautiful daughters and middle aged wife could not understand who we were, from what part of the world arrived, where people drink this poison for pleasure. Such a wilderness, this stupid Brazilians! We were trying to explain, and only the name of cosmonaut Tereshkova awakened something in their minds:
«Ahhh, the Communists!» . .
The stunned owner didn’t find the proper amount of the bottles and rushed somewhere. We were waiting, still explaining the gathering where we came from. When the owner returned, a crowd followed him to have a look at these strangers. They seemed as savages to us, I swear. What was really good the owner gave us a lift to the port on his truck. A procession of singing, dancing people follow us. OK, Brazilians, they loved carnivals, Russians love to drink. Friendship! 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 treasure and locked it in the storage:
«You’ll get it at home!”
Next day we already decided to go sightseeing and I was robbed at the middle of the day by two very friendly young Brazilians. My valet with the half a year salary has gone after very joyful acquaintance. Anyway very hospitable country.
As to these 12 bottles of pure spirit they would play very significant role in my future. The fact was that when we returned to Leningrad port city Komsomol leaders used to visit us due to our hospitality proved by the best drinks in the city. Among them the eye caught the representative of Central Committee very intelligent and creative Vadim Churbanov who was destined to change my life completely. But this was yet to come.
Near Cuba, a mile from American military base of Guantanamo we were attacked by 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 take 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 I suddenly realised, that there wouldn’t future for me in these long endless roundtrips. Depression and longing for something different, more meaningful and active in my life almost killed me. Neither eat nor sleep. 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…
After two weeks in the hospital the Shipping Company decided to send me back to the passenger ship, to new cruiser, built for the Soviet Union in Germany. On the top shelf in the compartment of the international train I traveled from Leningrad to Warnemünde, German Democratic Republic to check the new “Bashkiria» still in the shipyard. As a mechanic I crawled in the engine room under the steel decks checking the tightness of kilometers of pipelines for almost half a year. Potatoes and sausages from the hostess of our hostel in the morning, beer in the near by bar crowded by singing drunk Germans in the evenings — that was our experience of living abroad. Germans get up at five, lie down at nine, after five they close all shops, after seven — all the shutters in their houses, the town dies until the morning. At work they come quarter to six already in working overalls. Exactly at three — they are in the shower. Clean shirt, gentlemen suit, the bike and go home.
Once I asked Hans, an elderly worker with whom we examined the engine:
“How did you, such a educated, advanced and democratic nation, allowed Hitler to come to power?”
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 get what Hans just said. 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 new «Bashkiria» arrived in port Ventspils, then in Kaliningrad and finally harboured in Leningrad. Unknown workers appeared on board. They began to break the upper deck, remodelling the first class cabins. They expanded the radio room, installed on top the huge antennas. Somebody whispered that the ship was being prepared for a government voyage with Khrushchev himself on board with his associates. So we are going to visit the Scandinavian countries. The team was given new outfits, bonuses.
Long three month our life was looking as a vacation. No job, not any activity except our close friendship with Leningrad Komsomol. These young activists fall in love with my bottles of pure alcohol from Brazil. They brought with them on board very unusual interesting person from Moscow. Vadim Churbanov, Central Committee “apparatchik” was intelligent, even wise, educated liberal, who evidently tried to improve the mature socialism. We talked by hours about our life here and there abroad, and one day Vadim lured me to join him in the tour of seven writers, poets and singers along the Volga river with educational mission.
During those two wonderful weeks I made friends with writer Leonid Zhukhovitsky and correspondent of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” Igor Klyamkin on the basis of our common values of the sixties. Bard songs, unforgettable nightly conversations about eternal values, meetings with remarkable people of the Soviet province cured my soul. Vadim usually started these topics, as if teasing with easy victories over routine and doubts. And my heart ached, I was ready to believe again in the shining future.
   And as if continuing to tease me after this journey Vadim already from Moscow Vadim sent me a month later an issue of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” with a large motto: ”Komsomolsk of the 60’s Begins.” Somewhere in Kazakhstan, was going to be built a pearl of agriculture, new city of Karatau. The party appealed to us inviting young generation to embody promised shining future in one particular place. It was the notice of destiny. I was waiting to be called! I dreamed all my life to have chance to make something significant at the new milieu. Vadim, the tempter, teased from Moscow:
«Well, sailor, are you ready to take a chance? Will you take a challenge to build a new more fair life around you?”
The crew was preparing the ship for government assignment. And only I was collecting my belongings in an old sports fibre suitcase … Farewell, the sea. I’m sorry, Dad, I was a bad sailor. I went down the ladder in front of my buddies. Vadim Nikitin, the master, standing on the bridge expressively twirled his finger at his forehead. It meant: “Are you crazy, fucking freak?”
“Be consistent, follow one thing in life, little boy. Otherwise you’ll lose yourself,” said the my beloved teacher in school, red-haired, authoritative Olga Andreevna Savitskaya. She showed us the beauty of the literature, widened our horizons. She treated us like grownups, allowing freedom in our essays. We attended a literary circle at her home, where drank tea and cookies and taught to think. Dangerous occupation. 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 believing me.
What did it mean “to be lost”? I must try everything. Who knows when it will come in handy. Vadim Churbanov was frank: “Test yourself!” That day, when I was leaving «Bashkiria», I made my choice. Time to fulfil my own oath occured. Hey, blue cities! I’m here, Motherland! Here I’m.
A pleasant feeling of freshness of always tanned body washed after the watches and ocean winds in the face left in my memory for the rest of my life from my marine past. And this sharp yearning for the endless ocean roads will overwhelm my heart from time to time. It’s impossible to forget, if you tried once… Like the warm deck vibrated under your stretched body — the sound of working diesel engines. But I knew now: my way was to be among people who dedicated their lives for the future. So, goodbye to the sea. But for a long time after I’ll jump out of bed at four o’clock in the morning searching in the darkness loose coarse boots ready to run to the engine room.
I was on my way to Alma-Ata, crumpled the travel document of the Central Committee of the Komsomol in my pocket and feeling guilty before them, sea vagrants and laborers, before 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.
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.
The steam boiler exploded in the port of Riga, and our Red-watch mechanic Mukhin, who was on duty that night on a new, poorly adjusted ship, perished.
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.
Another victim of the sea returned home after an eight-month absence, learned from the good people about the betrayal of his beloved wife and hang himself in the bathroom on a belt from his trousers. Classmate Popelyukh, having lost his appetite and a dream of longing in months of transitions 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?
Pyotr 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…
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 first came from a distant, already foreign, Moscow to a real Ukrainian village.
Oleg Ryndin — bodybuilder and sly personality, who studied on the principle «do not 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 manage their small fleet of four ships on three languages from a cozy office scurrying around the world with such a efficiency as the managers of the Black Sea Shipping Company did not dream. And he will continue to enjoy life as strong as he was 40 years ago… 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 as a gift to Los-Angeles. Why among us, atheists, he turned into a Christian I don’t know. 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 except post-Soviet reality. He will be so upset with what happen in the Black Sea Steamship, where the whole fleet would be sold out to the foreign companies, that he quit his professor’s position and moved to his native village of Frolovo near Volgograd, where started as a school teacher.
Discharged from work, my college mates, experienced sailors of the highest qualification will find unprestigious humble work as stokers in the boiler rooms of Odessa sanatoriums. And the elegant, sophisticated Victor Borodin, the proud soloist of the college’s amateur performance with the best tenor in those years in Ukraine, will not accept this life and 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. And let Sanya Palyga hear me, who once threw me in the cockpit:
“What do you quote all the others? You come up with your own, then speak!”
I’ll think of it, 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 the very number of the Komsomolskaya Pravda. I read it, crossed out my life and began all over again. In my work record soon appeared: «Recalled at the disposal of the Central Committee of the Komsomol.» Moscow! I lived in the hotel «Youth», working together with Vadim on a program of spiritual revival of the Kazakh outback. Did they really need me? The question even did not arise in my mind. The schools, the kindergurdens, a library, cinema, theatre, Palace of culture, music school, football field, swimming pond… didn’t the communism builders deserve it? There’s your place, boy. If you are not a coward. Who’s the coward? Me? Yes, the blue cities … yes, that was what I was dreaming …
Vadim only shook his head:
“Well, come on, come on, check on yourself, 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, our only architect of the future, called it, opened to my sight in the centre of the phosphorite basin in the Dzhambul region as a red steppe, then a small lake, and finally a few burned treeless streets, built up with barracks and well recognisable standard five-story buildings. At the only plaza in this settlement I saw the sign “Gorniak» (Coal Miner) on the old-fashioned structure. It was a miner’s club and cinema for the whole town. 400 seats, one screening weakly. And dancing on Sundays. And vodka all weak through.
Here, in 1946 according the General Planning a mineral mining with processing plant was started. But the project wasn’t finished. Only 20 years later Khruschev decided to build a new GOK — the mines and processing plant to produce the fertilisers for Soviet collective farms. When construction was launched as a national ambitious project in the middle of nowhere, the Party called for the Komsomol to get labor force there. And population soon grew to as many as six thousand with new volunteers. Well, here I am. Obsessed by the idea to build shining future at this given place. Karatau, mon amour! So I thought, looking at the red poppies to the horizon.
I also applied to my friends — a poets, artists — in Odessa. I proudly named our mission as kulturtregers. Our mission here should be to carry culture values and free spirit to those who work in these mines. Since to my mind we are here not only to dig these phosphorites, but to build the shining future. Lev Mak responded, but whistled past, on the stud farm. He decided 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 responded. They even flew to Moscow, met with Vadim, got tickets to Karatau. And disappeared at the last moment in an unknown direction. Vadim wanted to announce the all-Union search, but I dissuaded him: what to expect from the absent minded artists… Only the restless daughter of the Caucasian prince Bella Dadesh, my classmate back to the school years, responded with a short telegram: «I am your soldier. I’m flying out. Meet up”.
Yes, our beloved teacher on Russian literature Olga Andreevna, always at the knives with the school director, also 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 …
Pakhmutova’s romantic patriotic songs popular in the 60’s gathered at Karatau new generation from all over the country. The Beatles and Presley would not unite and inspire Soviet youth better than these inspiring music of singing poets. Great spirit-lifting power were hidden in these songs. From Moscow and Saratov, Odessa and Kishinev, volunteers were heading to the Vergin Lands, to railroad BAM, to Karatau. Sometimes it looked like these romantics of the 60’s with their faith in Revolution simply voluntarily replaced the prisoners of GULAG who’ve built in 30’s Komsomolsk and Belomor Channel. They didn’t mind to sacrifice their previous more or less civilised life for the sake of shining future living in tents and barracks, in snow and frost. Here they live, of cause, in better condition — without walls with barbed wire and guards with sheepdogs. And they deserve to live here in a human way. Beside that they shouldn’t be deceived by revolutionary romance. It’s time for them, for all of us, to see this promised shining future at least in this new city, which they are building with their own hands right now.
What else could I dream of? To serve your Motherland was a piercing, noble and exalted passion, which often successfully replaced hard and rebellious search for the purpose and meaning of your personal life. Country was more important and valuable than family. The future is more exciting than the present. These values were still meaningful for us. At least, for me. To put it simple my mission in this town I saw in making life more meaningful and bright. Let’s start with replacing vodka by books, cinema, sport, theatre…
Would be great to make a documentary film about these people, about their life, concerns, dreams and coming changes. Meanwhile I was settling down to live on a mattress in a room allocated to the library in one of the workers’ hostels (parcels with books already were on their way). First to get acquaintance with people, with their life, to learn about this town, neighbourhoods, where they work and how they spend their leisure time. As a messenger from Moscow I was immediately coopted in the komsomol Buro as a Secretary on ideology. But local authorities and construction management took me as an alien with some suspicion. They didn’t care too much about workers, about things like condition of their life, leisure time and culture for their workers. I found out that very soon. Quality of people’s 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 people with flowers and orchestra. Very soon it turned out that Leningrad had sent us not only real volunteers, but mostly “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 are not going back anyway. We must accept them and encourage. So I address a speech to them:
“Hello, brothers, 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, good job and plenty of choices what to do. What time is it in the yard?… Our time.”
Among them were able young people, with whom we started something like an amateur theater very soon. Two girls had so good voices, and they did not have to be begged to sing. They eagerly sang in the evenings and their voices went high to the stars. Once, as we usually sat by the fire, was nice evening. One of the present suddenly began to read poetry. I heard 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?”
I continued:
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. We all got accustomed to come together after work for writing and rehearsing sorts of sketches about local life. Then we sat by the fire, chatting about everything. I was telling them my stories about Brazil, Japan, Singapore, about sailing around the globe. They listened, kept silent, following me to exotic unknown countries. Then time for songs came. Someone touched the guitar strings and tuned it, and started playing quietly. And my 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 my favourite liberal magazines «New World», «Youth», «Foreign Literature» and distribute them among my new friends. And more: I was repeating as a spell my promise to see here soon the students from Moscow Conservatory, from the Library institute, from famous VGIK — Film Institute. They were about to come. Agreements were achieved before I left Moscow for Karatau.
On quiet moonlit night we were walking after a rehearsal. The night steppe smelled of dried flowers. Suddenly a danger gathered behind me. Behind us a deafening noise began to grow. Were they chasing us? Who, for God’s sake?
“Run!”- I breathed out and we rushed. Mysterious dark force, 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 their whole settlement was settled years ago with 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 law 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 here the musicians, future celebrities and music critics.
“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 and addressed to the polite, politically correct miners:
“Wait, comrades! In a second you, all of us, will meet with a miracle, alive music, performed by one of the most gifted musician Andrey Korsakov. Please, just listen and keep silence. Something going to happen with all of us right now.”
And Sarasate’s melodies from the tender violin of Andrey Korsakov poured into their hearts, open to expectation. I swear, these rude and tired workers got such a mighty spiritual experience from music only once in their lives. Both sides were happy.
And a month later the cinema students arrived with new films never seen at our places. We announced the screening and discussion with the students afterwards. The club «Shakhter» was packed. I was happy to see how locals were watching film «Nine Days of One Year” which was a sensation in Moscow. Yury Gusev, who moderated the discussion about intellectual life of modern physicists, was suddenly interrupted by the voice from the audience:
“You, 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 also, that the technological process in general 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 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 decide in their offices. We were not invited there. The city leadership and construction management, apparently, considered our cultural needs and general life conditions to be something not important. They had more important issues. Some kind of front-line situation. Their words were: 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 much it is possible to live with hands-on jobs only?
Well, then finally we decided to go to their offices without invitation. I took a floor at Party Buro session and expressed the common idea 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 of the CPSU of Kazakhstan and to the Council of Ministers of Kazakhstan with the draft resolution «On setting cultural and mass work and cultural construction in Karatau.»
I didn’t know, to believe, or not believe. But 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 driving by car. 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. Something will happen, but later. Meanwhile I came back and the routine of life continued. Going through yellowed pages of my old notebooks, 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 next. The local administration got the anonymous letter about my criminal past by mail. The KGB 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 does not 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? The second secretary of the Komsomol city committee, the Kazakh, takes an official car and rides on it 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 was showing me his hospitality in their traditional way — shoving with his hands big pieces of meat into my mouth. A funky first secretary, Russian (here the first — always Russian) poured vodka into his seven-year-old son, 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? It was my mission to make the difference in this place, to improve the quality of life for people, the volunteers. I still tried to keep their faith that shining future is possible, that we can make it. The encouraging images from my favourite film “Communist» were sparkling in my mind and warmed up my own faith in my mission.
In despair I sent the pessimistic letter to Moscow, to Vadim, expressing my doubts: «We surely can encourage young generation to serve their country, Vadim. There are thousands of enthusiasts here already to sacrifice their present for future. But it turned out that there was no need in them anyway. Due to many reasons, known for sure to the decision makers in this country. Why on earth «Komsomolskaya Pravda» raised up the bests in whole country that September? Thousands came, meanwhile hundreds would have been enough. Why, and a hundred here was more then enough… Are we trying to kill a fly with a cannon?”
Vadim didn’t answered. Instead he offered my letter to “Komsomolskaya Pravda”. And insisted that it should be published. So what? Well, the letter was published! But the editor though 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 responded? In fact, I put questions to the leadership of Komsomol and the country. But they kept silence. 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.”
“And 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 finally 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, man. What do you want? They upstairs will close the construction site because of your complains in the newspapers. That is 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 fucking town like it is. And this construction will serve the country. No blue cities and shining future, sorry. It is not the first time for me. And 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 what the Komsomol construction site together with the town 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 Kuklinov, 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 was the oldest film school in the world. In my time it was known as the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography. Film directors who have taught at the institute were Lev Kuleshov, Marlen Khutsiev, Aleksey Batalov, Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Romm and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Alumni included Sergei Bondarchuk, Elem Klimov, Sergei Parajanov, Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovsky. A full member of the international CILECT network of film schools, the Institute will be renamed a university in 2008.
So I said: “VGIK!” And the miracle happened. The issue was resolved in seconds by the rector of VGIK Vitaly Groshev. He seemed even trying to persuade me:
“Do you have a higher education? O-o, you speak fluent English? So good, so good. You have two weeks before exams. Please, read 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?”
What-what? Did I agree? Graduate school? Wasn’t it a miracle? Oh, sure, I didn’t mind! Although it would be better to study directing. But you should not push luck twice I said to myself and unquestioningly accepted what was offered. What a luck! A week ago I didn’t even know what to do with my failed life. Where to go and what to do. Fucking looser.
“Don’t give up, boy!”
That was an advice from my school teacher. But what if I made a wrong choice? Only geniuses knew everything about themselves at yearly age. I am not a genius. Just give me a chance. Give me the next chance and time to look around.
And I look around. And stoned. Sasha Lapshin approched me, smiling:
«What are you doing here, buddy?» He is no less surprised than me.
“And you? Are you a student?”
“Yea, I’m on the script writing faculty. Do you know Kira Paramonova? She is my master”.
«Believe me or not… I was just enrolled as post-graduate student. And by the way who is this old woman with poisonous yellow wire hair?»
“Are you crazy? This is Khokhlova!”
She was almost a hundred, it seemed to me. My good friend Sasha! In the Odessa Sport School №1 we went together the way from awkward, thin-armed teenagers to the master of sports. Then all team flew in different directions. He went to the Institute of Physical Education, worked as a coach in a remote Siberian town, began writing short stories about his pupils, young gymnasts. And got admitted to the institute with these writing. Now I felt myself more comfortable and confident knowing that he was around.
Sasha quickly ran off somewhere to watch the movie, and I went to the library. For two weeks the history of cinema has learned as a beautiful fairy tale, not like course of the History of Communist Party. A new, amazing life commenced. Blank page. High, straightened, with a beautiful gray head, Professor Lebedev was my supervisor. Nikolai Alekseevich was the patriarch of Soviet cinema studies. 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. I read already his classical books on the history of cinema. He showed me the right direction of study, indicated the main theme: “The Movie and The Viewer”. In other words I will concentrate my attention on an echo of the shown films in society. 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. It looked like I would never become a perfect film critic. But as a sociologist I had a chance to do something worthwhile… Yes, again this profession couldn’t be found in the directories, but it would be a good substitute to my dream, journalism.
I found out soon that the Komsomol played no role in this institute. Their hangouts were in the smoking rooms, in the hostel, in a stall with a mug of beer. They argued with foam at the mouth about the great art, about holy eternal values, about secrets of creativity. And kept silence at the Komsomol meetings. There was nothing to argue about. The speakers were the rector, then the Party secretary. After their speeches we usually watched the pirate copy of a new foreign movie. Strange life. What was that? May be the way to survive for the country’s intellectual reserve?
My Komsomol records were tailing behind me. First I felt uncomfortable among scriptwriters, directors, actors, cameramen, whose names will be recognised soon by the whole country. Tarkovsky, Shukshin, Konchalovsky, Gubenko, beauties like Vika Fedorova, Valya Telichkina, Zhanna Prokhorenko, Zhanna Bolotova, Elena Solovey I saw everyday. I met there Kuleshov, Gerasimov, Romm. The spirit of Eisenstein was hovering over us. Traditions here kept carefully, even sacredly.
All were equal between equals. Not me. I saw myself through their eyes as a successfully married Komsomol functionary who didn’t deserve even to step in. May be I was wrong. Because all people around were very polite and looked friendly
“How is your father in law?”
“What he is working on now?”
These polite questions I was asked every day when I appeared in the dean’s office. Once very unexpected visitor came even to my home. It happened accurately amid my autumnal angina. A bell rang at my apartment. There was VGIK’s known heartthrob Sasha Stefanovich with a doll-like beautiful ballerina and actress Natasha Bohunova on the threshold with a cake in their hands. What a surprise!
«Well, we come to visit our sick friend». I didn’t see this couple too often in VGIK. Sasha had the reputation of Don Juan and I envied his braveness and audacity. Now it turned out that we became friends. Why not? Here he is, a tall blond handsome man, sitting on the edge of my bed, telling anecdotes, laughing. Maybe this was the beginning of a great friendship for life? With me or with my wife? But Stefanovich will soon concentrate his attention and charm on Alla Pugacheva and loose his interest in me and Natasha. He successfully married our famous diva and even made a movie “Woman who sings”. Later he will live in France, country that matched his temper and personality.
My first really good 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:
«Come to the restaurant Beijing. Take your wife with you. There is a special room on the third floor. No staircases, only an internal elevator. We gather 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 famous recognisable faces. People’s Artist Matveev stopped in mid-sentence and waited impatiently till we sat down. Then he continued a long quote from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. Next to me was sitting 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:
“I like your toast. You seem smart”. She said to me.
We started talking, but someone’s caring hands took the General Secretary’s daughter away from me.
Elegant, sharp-eyed, with short dark hair, the bride Natalia Fedotova later became friends with my Natasha. Our families got together for any occasion. Oleg secretly complained: his wife tried to make a bard of him, pushing him to stage with concerts, earning money. They got a son Slava shortly after wedding. But their marriage wasn’t happy. They divorced and parted with scandals, she didn’t allow him 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 managed to come 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 card from my pocket, and boastfully looked around. Did everyone see where this guy go? But there, inside, the confidence disappeared. Something was missing for complete happiness. I looked at them and felt this damned envy. Who, in fact, I am? Definitely not one of them. Dammit, I’m here on a note! I can’t sing, can’t dance and act, never wrote a story or a script. I must do something outstanding to get recognition, to deserve their attention. And silently, without looking around I sneaked to the viewing room to watch the world classics. Sometimes three, even four films a day. I sat in the library over books and articles, wrote my short note on the cards to remember the names, the films, their plots, the directors and writers. Only with time my notes on these cards got some individual sense. Little by little my own opinion was born, the quantity turned into quality.
Professor Lebedev soon involved me in the process of teaching. He invited me to lead with him his seminar «Cinema and the viewer» as an assistant. 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 information. Actually my professor was the first who paid attention on “scissors” (distinction) between critic’s and public taste, analysed statistics of the box office hidden from the public in the Goskino bulletin “only for restricted use” and raised the question about so called “mediocre” movies that were ignored by the Soviet viewer. This seminar with my participation soon grow up into the new discipline «Sociology of Cinema» resumed after almost forty years of interruption. In some way we grew up together.
Professor Lebedev gathered around him enthusiasts for the revival of the 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. We received a lot of interesting information and sociological data on national audience and it’s differentiation by latent characteristics.
Unexpectedly for the first time I encountered the hidden resistance of the political system. Regardless of the names of recognised 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 not with Professor Lebedev, but with the chairman of the Film Critic Section of the Filmmakers Union Alexander Novogrudsky. The experienced Party member 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 a differentiation of the mass audience, Igor?” looked at me reproachfully Novogrudsky. “Didn’t you notice, that we are already a whole historical integrity of Soviet people»? The fact that in 20 years this “historical integrity of Soviet people” will collapse like a house of cards and the former brothers will start killing each others, didn’t occur to us. Finally the conference was allowed to held. It was successful, only without any coverage of mass media. But anyway we managed to publish the most valuable materials on printers in the number of one hundred copies.
And we all continued our mission: my first sociological essays and research data appeared in the VGIK Press bulletin. The Associate Professor Yosifyan at the chair of Marxism-Leninism with his students conducted interviews in cinemas and published reports there also. Gradually I took the whole responsibility for the seminar and made it more open to discussion and doubts. I posed questions that often didn’t have evident answers. We tried to think together. My teacher did not interfered. The gap between my reputation as the Komsomol nominee and the graduate student gradually was filled up. In three years I was enrolled in a position of part-time assistance professor.
  Teaching became more and more captivating. It looked like I found my field of reference also — albeit narrow, but specific niche, where my word made sense for others. It was sociology. I saw my mission in bringing together film criticism and sociology, teaching my students to pay attention on how different films act in contemporary society. Even respectful Moscow philosophers like Yuri Davydov and Paola Gaidenko contemlated on this matter. Only the traditional film historians and film aestheticians kept their fidelity to their bird language, which was good to hide their real thoughts from ideological censorship. I didn’t understand them, they disliked sociology like Plebeian language. Only courageous and perceptive Maya Turovskaya dared to turn her attention to the mass cinema audience and accurately place the accents in the relations of art with the mass consciousness, calling such a perception of films out-of-the-art.
In the 70’s, the cinema sociology will penetrate even in the Science-Research Institute of Cinematography under the sponsorship of Goskino. Politburo showed its concern regarding low efficiency of ideological movies. Party demanded an explanation for the unpleasant statistics of a sharp drop in cinema attendance. It was evident that the case was not only in the invasion of television. Something has been changed in the public mood. Indian melodramas became more successful then American westerns. The big secret of official statistics were the fact that overall box office of 150 Soviet films that were produced annually made less, then 10 American films.
In a word, there was enough themes to talk about at my seminar. And I kept teaching in VGIK almost twenty years. Once a week, four hours in a row was not a big deal, but my subject was so alive and even hot, that I had to be well prepared. I dig out books and articles, analyzed the Goskino box office reports, translated some pieces from English. I argued with the film critics who explained the scissors (difference) between public tastes and their exclusively with aesthetic illiteracy of the mass audience. But the reason why the Soviet viewer sobbed in Indian melodrama must be found in different area — in cultural traditions, in lack of attention to individual feelings of Soviet people who were educated to sacrifice their lives to Motherland, etc. Our «Amphibian Man» at the box office also collected an unprecedented 70 million tickets due to the romantic love between girl and amphibian man. People wanted to see a melodrama, an action-packed spectacle, a comedy. It was a trend which steamed from the Thaw. And illiteracy had nothing to do with it.
Another trend that attracted me most of all was connected with films on a social issues. «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» — films focused on inner life and a personal crisis, on some actual social problems, did not find a response in a mass audience. And, therefore, in the soul of the people. Why? We also talked about this phenomena at the seminar. Another phenomenon of the “gray film” will soon become even the subject of a protracted and senseless discussion in mass media. The students came to the conclusion that as long as these films remained within the framework of ideological discourse they were doomed to be shallow and banal. For us at the seminar was evident that the cinema was suffocating behind the ideological bars, brave minds were increasingly breaking out … their films were sent by the sensors on the shelf. We also talked about this practice. But I tried not to bury myself. What my students already knew was not yet reaching the Goskino officials. They ordered sociological studies and were afraid of their conclusions.
I learned to read, look, listen, pull out of the underground allegories and subtexts, unclipped thoughts and ideas. I tried not to leave them in the basement of my mind. They should work for my students. Risky, by the way, was the game: it seems that we did not have forbidden topics, but somewhere there was a borderline of what was allowed, what wasn’t. And no one could see it. But I must know where to stop. I also poured oil on the fire: find your way yourselves, pioneers! No, we were not dissidents. But if you step over — you become one. And 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 us. My goal was to support future filmmakers in fulfilling 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 conducted my inner struggle with previous faith in communism and with the “method of socialist realism” in art and cinema. The students in some way perceived this struggle as a sincere and honest revelation brought to their consideration and responded with their own openness and gratitude. My seminars got some reputation among students and soon I was… welcomed to do the same for the most prestigious faculty — for film directors. For future directors I chose another topic — foreign cinema, mostly American independent movies which I analysed in socio-political context. VGIK had a privilege to screen films unknown for rest of the country like “The Graduate”, «Easy Rider», «Coming Home», «Mean Streets», «Laughing Policeman», “Death Wish”, “Rocky”, “Rambo”. I used this chance for myself and for students. Through the prism of these pictures we together tried to understand the turbulent 60’s in American life. It was a short way to teach them to do the same in their own future artistic carrier…
Of course I had to know more than my students before I stand in the classroom with my thoughts and analysis. Not only I must know more, I should bring them my own discoveries and faith. So my home work was very intensive and exciting. Preparation was like pulling on a string of thoughts. In order not to take their eyes off the arrow that was fired, to keep their attention and provoke their own thoughts. If the string was not stretched, and could not fly, I skipped my classes. My part-time position allowed this. But when we met, there was a real drive, mutual trust and intellectual contact, intense group work. I didn’t know who got more fun — me or them. This kind of classes many years later will be known in new Russia as training technic, interactive education.
 Every day I was fishing in the ocean of printed words in the progressive magazines «New World», “Foreign Literature” and «Youth», hunting for acclaimed books like «Realism without Shores» by Roger Garaudy, Pasternak’s «Doctor Zhivago» or «Otherworldly Meetings» by Lev Ginzburg. For a few days secretly you could get «Ivan Chonkin» by Vladimir Voinovich or «Moscow — Petushki» by Benedikt Erofeev and some more. In my case this non-systematic reading replaced systemic education. 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 achievement of a civilization freed from greed, from hunting for profit and consumerism. I still believed that the guilt for these dark bloody spots on our history laid on the particular politicians, not on the system. Next step in my mind meant to get out of the system, to reject it as vicious, as subject not to repair. I hadn’t enough courage to make this step. All life would be destroyed… I think I was not the only one who stopped in front of this precipice …
I remember how I was struck by the thought that came from Leo Ginzburg, a poet and an interpreter, who described meetings with the rulers of the Third Reich left behind — Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess, and their relatives, with 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 writer: «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 side of the writer unconditionally. Something was happening as if beside me, in the depths of consciousness, like an iceberg, the loyalty of the party to the government was melting in me.
When I reread Lenin I was amazed by our common blindness and deafness for decades. How for God sake, I asked myself, it was possible to accept and applaud to a dictatorship of that sort: «The scientific concept of dictatorship means nothing other than unlimited, unrestrained violence, no laws, absolute no rules, directly on terror resting power». It justified a mass terror against “people enemies” — innocent “bourgeois”, “kulaks”, “Cossacks”, “foreign spies” and “traitors”. Which turned into genocide and international crime instead of being a civilizational breakthrough in the “bright future”. I have already read the «Chivingur» by Andrey Platonov, Zamiatin’s anti-utopia «We» written in 1924 and Orwell’s anti-utopia «1984»… It was my lack that I was born after that incredible incomprehensible past. But the country and people were still the same! And I…What should I do with this ruthless knowledge? Politically correct course for my students? I slowly and inevitably drifted toward internal emigration …
My dissertation grew out of the Lebedev seminar «Cinema and the viewer» and was focused on “kinoclubs” — nation wide association of film funs clubs which organised those who wanted more then entertainment from the cinema. These clubs were reborn in the 60s and united the most politically advanced audience. Instinctively I felt in these people my counterparts and tried to explore their inner world of faith and values. The task was to discern this social group as a vehicle to make a difference in the society.