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ISSUE:  Winter 1991

Our man in London rang: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow had told the American officials there that they would not grant me a Tourist Visa.

They said I could enter only on a private visitor’s Ordinary Visa. And then they said that my fiancé had not supported my application for such a visa.

What kind of support was required?

A formal letter of invitation.

Now, the list of instructions which the Soviets issue concerning application for private visits nowhere mentions that such a letter is required. Nor had anyone, on my visits to the Soviet Consulate in London, said anything about this requirement.

And, naturally, this letter of invitation was not one which Imant could submit to the authorities in Latvia. He had to send it to me, and then I was to submit it to the Soviet Consulate in London. The trick here, as everybody knew perfectly well, was that the Soviets still weren’t letting any of Imant’s mail out.

But there was something to show: the cable and registered letter Imant had already sent to Nepesov stating his intent to marry me. I was sure Soviet censors wouldn’t intercept mail directed to a Soviet consulate. They would figure there was no point in it.

So the thing to do was to get Nepesov to own up to the cable and letter. If I could prove that Imant had notified Soviet authorities that he wanted to marry me, they couldn’t very well say he didn’t support my application for a visa.

I telephoned Nepesov.

After four different people had passed the call along, someone who said he was Nepesov answered. But his voice was higher, his accent thicker, than—

“The first I heard that you came to see me,” he said, “is when I get this letter from you.” Meaning the letter I had carefully sent, following my meeting with him, detailing, for the record, our conversation.

“The first I heard that you came to see me!”

What? My mother, my father and I had all been introduced to a “Mr. Nepesov,” who, according to Pribanov, “handles immigration,” while he—Pribanov—dealt only with visas. Not only that, but the Nepesov we had met said he had “twenty-five applications for immigration on my desk right now.”

“That was not me,” this Nepesov said.

“Isn’t this rather strange?” I asked, with admirable restraint.

“Oh no, is an understandable misunderstanding.”

Well, I suppose it might have been, had one of us been introduced to the gentleman under confusing circumstances, but three of us were introduced to him, and under the most precise circumstances of asking for, waiting for, and shaking hands with “Mr. Nepesov,” who “handles immigration.” It was possible that there were two Mr. Nepesovs at the Soviet Consulate (but if so, they hadn’t met each other).

There was no misunderstanding, but I was doing my best not to sound angry. “Then why were we told that we were talking with Mr. Nepesov?” I asked.

“Oh, I cannot say—I knew nothing—” But he didn’t deny we’d been told it was Nepesov.

“Well then,” I asked, “who was he?”

But Nepesov—this Nepesov—never answered that question. I then told him that I wanted to proceed with an application for immigration to the Soviet Union. “You already have the cable and the registered letter from my fiance,” I said, six or seven times, so that he had plenty of opportunity to deny receipt. He never did. But like the Nepesov we had been introduced to at the consulate, he refused to entertain an application for immigration, saying that “the other application must be answered or canceled before a new application can be made.”

He admitted that this was a recently inaugurated regulation; again, I wondered if they’d adopted it especially for me. Like the letter of invitation for a private visit, or like the regulation that said I couldn’t apply for a Tourist Visa while my application for a private visit was pending, this regulation was mentioned on none of the papers I had ever received from them, or from anyone else, and I would bet that it had originally sprung spontaneously from the fertile brow of Mr. Pribanov (beneath the greasy kid stuff that preserved comb tracks in a plaster cast). The Soviets could produce these ad hoc “regulations” from now until doomsday, and I had no recourse against them.

I handed the telephone to my mother. I have never come to terms with the instrument where “official” calls are concerned. It’s too impersonal for telling the whole story, too intimate for receiving rejections, and too quick to answer— the answers come before you’re ready to respond to them. My mother, on the other hand, found the telephone intimate enough for telling the whole story, impersonal enough for receiving rejections, and quick enough with answers— nothing annoyed her more than having to sit around with her responses, waiting to deliver them when she’d had them ready for a week. She asked him outright: Did he have the cable and letter? He hedged; he said he’d have to check if they were on file. But he knew very well what was on file; he had said so at the beginning of the conversation. He informed my mother emphatically that, although he was not the man we’d met, he was “thoroughly familiar with all the details of your daughter’s case.”

He had grown impatient, and there was, in his impatience, a timbre to his tone that echoed . . .someone . . .but who? Later, drinking hot chocolate at the dining room table, my mother, a professional musician, played back that voice in her head. “I’ve got it,” she said, slapping the table with the heel of her right hand. The mustard jar jumped. She laughed. “This Nepesov sounded remarkably like Pribanov.” Then she fell thoughtful. “Assuming, of course, that Pribanov was Pribanov.”

I called our man at the U. S. Embassy in London back. “I’m afraid they’ve got Imant and me boxed in,” I said, “and there’s no way out.”

“We’re going to try to find a way out,” he promised.

Nevertheless, I didn’t see how, or where. How could I find a way “out” when I had no way of proving we were boxed “in”? I was living in a Kafkaesque world where the Soviets decided what was, and what wasn’t. And what was today, could vanish tomorrow, disinherited, gone without a trace. The Soviet authorities could pretend that Imant never sent any letters; they could lie about the application he had filed; they could say no cable was sent to Nepesov; they could say nothing had ever been real. Even Nepesov was not Nepesov. Pretty soon they’d be claiming Imant was a figment of my imagination. But if that was so, he was a most unhappy figment, who had very realistically called Russia “the biggest prison in the world.”

He was locked in, and they were locking me out.


It was unfair.

Freud says women’s chronic complaint about the world stems from their anatomical grievance—that life is “unfair” and has shortchanged them. That grievance stunts their moral development. If he had done his thinking about this subject a little later in life, he would have viewed it in a different light. Only a well-off prewar white male might fail to see that the world is unfair to men and women. It is the stunted moral development of people in power that gives rise to women’s grievance.

I used to ask myself what “fair” would be, in terms of a human society. I had in mind a kind of abstraction—justice— which would be instantly recognizable to everyone who experienced it, or the lack of it. (For it is possible to conceive of a just world in which the inhabitants, not appreciating the size of the pie or the number of the partakers, merely fancy they are getting less than their share.) Lawyers, political theorists, and economists are wont to talk about distributive justice and retributive justice, and whether what one owns is rightfully his own, but setting up a world which is “just” according to any of these definitions means behaving in our present world in ways which will violate another definition of justice. For example, if I want to distribute the world’s goods equally, I will have to take some from those who have more in order to give to those who have less, and if that “more” was rightfully earned, or perhaps if it was legally inherited, then according to an entitlement theory of justice, I am stealing. Or if I limit the amount that can be earned, then I must make all jobs equal, either before or after taxes; but somebody is bound to argue here that some jobs deserve to be higher paid than others, because they are more dangerous, more difficult, less steady, or more worthwhile. Even if you steer by that clever-seeming formulation—”From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”—you run into trouble. Who will judge my abilities? Who will judge my needs?

The kind of justice, or fairness, I hankered after was one which would satisfy all the members of the state, whether they were Communists or capitalists, or what have you. Now, this was only a question I thought about for the fun of thinking about it. I didn’t expect to be leading any revolutions or counterrevolutions, so if it was a slightly silly question, the way I tackled it, at least my conclusions weren’t going to destroy millions of lives.

Besides, the slightly silly question has a point, as in the Hasidic story about the Helmites who bought a barrel of justice.

Helm is in Poland, near Lublin, but “the wise men of Helm” live in legend, on the border between invention and truth. The living there is just as hard as anywhere, and one day it dawns on “the wise men of Helm” that each day the rich in their town get richer, and the poor—certainly not richer. There is no justice anywhere in Helm. Well, think they, if there is no justice here, we will look for it elsewhere. They will go out into the world, buy a barrelful, and bring it back.

A contingent sets off for Warsaw, and there they meet a man who offers to sell them the Vistula Bridge. “No thanks,” they say, “that’s not what we came for.”

So the man says, “A synagogue maybe?”

But they answer, “A synagogue we’ve got already.”

“What, then?”

“Would you happen to have a barrel of justice?”

“A barrel of justice! Well,” says the merchant, “why didn’t you say so in the first place?” And he gives them a barrel and takes their money.

The Helmites load the barrel—it seems that justice is a very weighty commodity—onto their wagon and return to Helm. When they get there, the whole town turns out— mayor, rabbi, beadle, the lot. And they pry the lid off the barrel, and what’s inside if not a catch of rotten fish?

“Look,” the mayor cries, “this justice stinks!”

For my part, I’m not an unreconstructed capitalist—I don’t see how anyone could be, who has no vested interests, and I have lamentably few interests to vest—but Marxist communism has always struck me as the most naive of political theories. I use the word “naive” on purpose. What Marx did, it seems to me, was to mistake his mind for the world—a classically paranoid solipsism. Dialectic is an accurate description of one way the mind works (analysis being another, and metaphor at the root of both), but to say history proceeds by dialectic is to confuse the observer with the thing observed. Look around, or back.

But of course Marxism would appeal to Russia . . . . Nations may or may not have characteristic psychological types, but they do seem to be subject to characteristic fallacies, and if the characteristic American fallacy, at least up until the present era of disillusionment, has been a relentless optimism, the unexamined belief that good ever triumphs over evil, as if the crucifixion were, after all, only a temporary discomfort, like heartburn—an optimism so staunch that we have had to produce a whole tradition of prophets of pessimism, including, for example, Melville and Twain, to inveigh against it—then the peculiarly Russian mistake, Czarist or Soviet, has always been solipsism, that egoistic reduction of the world to self. Russia has always been philosophically unresponsive to the complexities of real life, latching eagerly onto any scheme that is both comprehensive and simplistic: it’s the very opposite of the pragmatic temperament.

The joke says: Under capitalism, man exploits man, but under communism, it’s the other way around.

Theories of justice which assume that there is not enough to go around—enough of whatever—are lately out of fashion. These theories all say that whatever is available should go to those who most deserve it; merit can be determined on any number of bases.

Raw capitalists and party bosses in fact operate according to some such theory, but even they generally have to pay lip service to the modern idea that everyone should and can get a “fair” share—whether it’s food, job opportunities, energy supplies, living room, opportunities for education, or legal counsel and the protection of the law. Capitalists and Communists alike formally subscribe to a theory of justice which assumes that there is enough—enough of whatever—to go around.

Thus I have a dispute with so-and-so, but the difference between us is assumed to center on how a sufficient such-and-such will be distributed between us. We hoof it to the nearest arbitrator, and if he’s very wise or very lucky, he’ll arrive at a decision that seems to both of us just. In practice, he’s more likely to disappoint one or the other of us, but we agree to accept the case-by-case reality because we know that we are only one case among many and that the ideal of justice is meant to be realized in the interests of the majority.*

But suppose that there is not enough of Whatever to make an equitable distribution of it, even if the means and the will for an equitable distribution exist. The time for such a supposition has come: if the population goes on exploding, or if our demands go on rising, we may indeed run out of sufficient Whatever before long. And perhaps it has always been, sadly, the right time for supposing this: all down the ages, people have suffered from an effective insufficiency. When the money goes toward a massive arms buildup, fringe benefits for secret agents, and hot rods for Brezhnev, the people reap the rewards in terms of meatless Thursdays. What would Marx say about Soviet Russia?

But Soviet Russia is too much to think about all at once— too much for me, anyway—so let’s simplify the situation by limiting it to Siberia. Arctic Siberia. It is easier to think about, all that white waste. One snowflake does it; the rest is a simple exercise in multiplication.

Suppose that you are in Siberia, then. But why? You and a colleague—comrade?—are the sole survivors of a scientific expedition. Even the dogs are dead, or scattered in a final frenzy. The snow is blowing, and the flakes freeze on your face; you feel as though a hundred bits of glass have been embedded in your face. You couldn’t weep—the tears have frozen in their ducts.

You are in Siberia, lost, and your colleague is giving you some pretty funny looks. Between you and him, or her, there is food enough for only one to live—enough food to fuel one of you to the nearest camp. If you share it, you will both die of starvation.

Right now, the single precious sliver of dried venison is sewn into the lining of your jacket, and why on earth should you give it to him?

If he takes the venison from you, he is a thief, and in his eyes, if not mine, if you withhold it from him, you might as well be a thief. In his eyes, you have robbed him of what is “justly”—by virtue of any measure he cares to adduce—his. What I think of you or him doesn’t enter into this; there are only the two of you, and you are in Siberia, and it is snowing, and one of you is going to die.

There’s only one way out of this dilemma. You have to change one of the two horns. The two horns are labeled “Take,” and one of them has to be changed to “Give.” By definition, your companion is not about to give the venison to you: if he had the venison, he’d certainly keep it, and in any case, he doesn’t have it. But you can choose to give it to him.

This will, of course, strike him as perfectly just (and it saves him the trouble of taking it from you by force). But the exhilarating paradox—which will escape his attention—is that you will think it’s just, too . . .because you were the judge and decreed giving, justice. While there was still more than one avenue of acting open to you—you could resist, run, or eat fast—you acted. You actively elected to be acted upon. You gave up everything of value that you possess, except one thing—your authority.

Since in a world which has not got enough Whatever, someone must always have too little, each of us must—if we want justice for all—act as if he has too much; for if we act as if we have too little and take Whatever from someone else, we behave in his eyes unjustly, and if we only keep what we have, he will see it as taking, but if we act as if we have too much and give what we have to someone else, then we behave justly from every point of view.

Of course, if no one has anything at all—no venison—there is a problem, but it is not the problem of justice.

It has to be remembered that in this Siberia, as I’ve described it, there are only two points of view. “Every” means his and yours, or at most theirs and ours. It all changes the minute a third party is introduced. The logistics are different then. Your “colleague” may try to steal not from you but from the third party, or, stealing from you, will deprive the third party. But this, too, is not the problem of justice. It’s the problem of injustice.

And again, you may find yourself ready enough to give up all you possess, but not knowing whether to hand it over to this person or that one, when there isn’t enough for both. But this is not the problem of justice, and it is also not the problem of injustice. It’s the problem of evil, though in an unfamiliar guise.

But we were fooling around with justice, thinking about how to achieve a justice which would seem just to everyone to whom it is meted, and the answer seems to be to create a world in which you, singular or plural, are one side, and there is one other side, and then you give yourself, singular or collective, up to the other self. It looks like another word for “justice” is “sacrifice.”

This kind of justice is not possible unless there are at least two personalities in the world; and if there are three, it is not possible unless two can act as one.

So if there were a God, and, being good, he wanted to be a just God, it would at least make sense for him to create a world and sacrifice himself for it. Abraham asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Ages have passed, and Sodom and Gomorrah, which went up in smoke, have been blown away like smoke, but that question stays with us, like the earth under our feet. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Often enough, the answer seems to be no—unless, like people laboriously deciphering a new and difficult language, we’ve mistaken “yes” for “no.” Presumably, if there is a Judge of all the world, he wants justice for all, for One and the Other: and for him, that could mean, as it meant for you in Siberia, giving and giving up everything that he possesses, the world in the shape of his son. The “contradictions” in his character would be reconciled by voluntary renunciation, and the power to abstain from the use of power would be seen as the greatest power of all, coequal with infinite goodness. The world would be suffused with his sacrifice, and each little corner of it, irrigated by sacrifice, would bloom. There would be grass in the desert, roses in Siberia.

I could imagine how Pribanov would smirk if anyone ever asked him to define justice. My question was slightly silly, because whatever answer I arrived at was going to mean to the people in power about as much as if I decided to stand on my head in Trafalgar Square.

Sometimes, even now, I would try to tell myself that maybe the Soviet Union was not really hellbent on treating people meanly—it only looked that way because the KGB was still fighting the Cold War. What used to be called cultural lag has become bureaucratic lag, and the world is being run by people who are always roughly about ten years behind it. They live on the other side of the looking glass, and to get anywhere they have to run twice as fast as they can. I could only hope that someone would suddenly catch up with the times. Imant’s and my situation would come to the notice of someone in the Kremlin who would instantly lament and condemn the shortsighted actions of his underlings. (Pribanov’s head would roll.)

Someone would see that Imant and I were just two people, two nonpolitically active people, who wanted to marry each other and live together. Letting us live together in Latvia would say something attractive, however minor, for the Soviet government. But then, perhaps, someone would reconsider. Someone would lean back in his leather chair, sigh, fit the tips of his ten fingers one on one, take them apart and put them together again, and reconsider. And someone, reconsidering, might figure that Imant and I, by loving each other, were making a political statement. Put simply, it was this: our loyalty to each other came before our loyalty to any government. It could be that if enough people fall in love with each other, the state will indeed wither. In that case, my question might not be so silly after all—nor the answer to it irrelevant.


The U. S. Embassy in Moscow came up with a new plan. They cabled my man at the embassy in London that if Imant could stroll casually past the embassy in Moscow at an appointed hour on a certain day, they would have an official stationed outside to meet him. The official would escort Imant past the Soviet militia guards into the embassy; there, they would take the letter of invitation from him.

I don’t know how they were going to send the letter of invitation to me, since it would have been personal mail, ineligible for the diplomatic pouch. Maybe they were going to keep it there. They could point out to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that if Imant was willing to deliver the letter in person, he obviously would have been willing to deliver it by mail—if it had been possible.

It was so simple—and so difficult. Did the KGB know of the plan as soon as the embassy in Moscow cabled it to the embassy in London? Could I get word of the plan to Imant? Would the KGB pick him up before he reached the embassy, and if he made it, would they arrest him afterward?

“We think our communism is fascism,” he had said—my anonymous acquaintance in the Soviet Union. People say, Yes, but they never had an Enlightenment over there. Or they point out that even in the West the individual has been respected only under special conditions, for brief periods. One woman actually said to me, “Maybe they have their reasons.”

Yes, she actually said that, and so, unwittingly, reminded me that Hannah Arendt had said that evil is banal. But though it is important to remember this, it is equally important to remember that evil is banal only when you’re examining it dispassionately; close in, face to face with it, you see another aspect, its magnitude. It can daze you for life if it lets you live at all. It is a giant made of emptiness, with chasms for eyes and a whirlpool for a mouth, and its breath is death.

Does the giant recognize that the hurt it inflicts on us is hurt? I want to say it does, but I can’t. The giant is blind and mute, and it doesn’t know how it feels to be—hurt, or anything. How could it, when it is the absence of being? Even the hooded interrogator who calls the prisoner out for the 40th time in a single night, shatters the man’s kneecap with a blackjack and shouts obscenities in his ear . . .does he know? He may see that he is causing pain; he may be glad to be causing pain; but I don’t think he knows what he sees because he doesn’t know what it means. He hasn’t imagined what he would feel, sitting there in the prisoner’s place.

I wanted to think that “they” were aware of the sadness and anxiety they caused, that they could feel it themselves; then I could hate them absolutely, without hesitation. But it was clear at every turn that they themselves were locked in that same immense prison they’d constructed. Call it, without too much irony, rampant solipsism. If to know is to perceive, to grasp the sense or senses of, then the really scary and— there is the irony—the saving thing is, they do know not what they do. Whether I could forgive them was a separate question.

I sent a cable to Imant’s brother, Karl, who still resided within the city limits of Riga and could, sometimes, be reached; in the cable, I asked Karl to call me. If he got the cable and was able to call, he would take my message out to the country to Imant. To be sure I omitted nothing, I slept with a sheet of paper on which my whole speech to Karl was typed, points numbered in order. All the next day I kept the paper in my pocket, and Wednesday night I went to bed with it again, but like a dope, when I took my glasses off I put them on my desk. When the call came, at half past midnight, I found myself at the telephone with a piece of paper I couldn’t read. The operator said she had Moscow on the line and I replied, “I can’t see!”

She surely must’ve thought that whether I could hear was more to the point, but she went ahead with the linkup. I was trying to reach my desk with one hand while holding the receiver with the other, but I needed arms about three feet longer. “I can’t see, I can’t see,” I repeated, hoping my mother—the upstairs phone was in her room—would find my glasses, but her reaction was to dash from bed, run downstairs and put the cocoa on. My father, without his hearing aid, couldn’t hear me say I couldn’t see. Are similar crises going on in other households all over the world in the middle of the night?

Karl seemed calm enough at his end, though he was probably wondering, since I couldn’t see, why I didn’t turn the light on.

I tried to recite my message without the piece of paper. “The Soviet authorities are saying that Imant doesn’t support my application for a private visit!” How I got that out, I don’t know; I was so afraid that I wouldn’t get everything said that the words crowded up; I felt as if I had a traffic jam in my throat.

And just suppose the Russians weren’t lying, suppose Imant had changed his mind? I had been so long without a letter from him, without hearing his voice on the telephone. Besides, this was a hell of a thing to have to ask any man, even one in love: to travel some 550 miles from Riga to Moscow, dodge the KGB, arrive for an assignation in front of a foreign embassy, and present to a foreign government the letter which his own government was trying to claim didn’t exist. Would Imant do it? I asked Karl.

“Yes, I am sure,” Karl said. “But he sent the cable and letter to the embassy in London, as you asked.”

“The Soviets will not admit it,” I said. “Karl, everything depends on this letter. Tell Imant that without it, we may never be able to see each other again.” I picked a date out of the air. “Can Imant go to Moscow on December the seventh?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so,” he said, “but why this day especially?”

There is a tone of voice that seems to me peculiar to East Europeans, which they use when they are puzzled but don’t want to offend a Westerner by asking an intrusive question. They ask the question but in a voice that stands very slightly to one side, as it were, so that if the question does turn out to be troublesome, the voice can reach out and put handcuffs on it. Karl’s voice was doing this now—policing his words.

I said, “They will have a man to meet him out front. I’ll tell them that Imant will be there on the seventh.” Then I gave Karl the telephone number of the Moscow embassy, which I’d gleaned somewhere along the line. I thought he might have a use for it. He had to search for a pencil, and in the interim I could hear my telegraphic heart again. It was beating in dots and dashes. I realized that I must have been shouting into the telephone, because I could also hear my voice echoing in my head.

“Okay,” he said, when he was ready. For some reason, I pictured him writing with the stub of one of those yellow half-size pencils, with no eraser and a worn point that would just barely produce an impression on paper. I gave the number to him, he read it back, and then the operator told us our time was up. “Tell Imant,” I said, “that I love him very much and think about him all the time.”

The operator separated us, and I went downstairs for a cup of cocoa. It was Thanksgiving morning.

Understandably, England wasn’t going to celebrate the day. Neither would my parents, both of whom hated turkey. They had a concert to go to, and I stayed home with Beauregard. He joined me in the green chair, winding himself up into the smallest possible ball against my hip. If you tugged on his tail, he’d unwind and spin like a top. The U.S. Embassy in London was closed, the postman had come early and bore no bad tidings, I couldn’t reasonably start worrying about Imant until he’d had time to get my message from Karl. I had, in fact, that rare thing, an entire day free of fearfulness. I actually didn’t have to spend the daylight hours in my usual mental crouch, tensed for blows. I could sit in the green chair, stretch out my legs, and relax. The Russian word for detente is razryadka, an easing or relaxing of tensions. If the world powers could feel the way I felt on Thanksgiving Day, they’d dismantle all their warheads, sack their spies, and break open a bottle of Cointreau. That’s what I did, and, for my money, it beats turkey anytime.

The scene framed in the bay window matched my mood, or maybe, for once, I matched it. My brain seemed to turn to bark. There were yellow leaves on the brown branches of the oak tree, all the green gone to glory. The skies were gray, a flat gray of unvarying value, the same quiet shade spread from pane to pane like a lead coating. Outside, in the fir tree, a blue tit was hanging upside down, like a Christmas ornament.

The next day a rising wind was ripping the last leaves from the oak and flinging them across the yard; they scattered like finches in a cloud of gold. I called our man at the embassy and relayed my conversation with Karl; I was worried because I hadn’t thought to set an hour for the appointment on December the seventh. He took Imant’s address so the embassy in Moscow could send a wire to Imant in Vecpauleni, giving the details of the meeting.

But something was wrong, something was not going right, and I knew it. I had bad dreams at night and woke up worn out, and carried all day the sense of a confrontation to be resumed . . .with the interrogator who lives at the back of the brain and calls you in just when you think you’re safely sleeping. The questions he asks are killing ones. This time he asked the same question over and over: Is Imant in Moscow?

And I knew Imant wasn’t in Moscow. If Imant were in Moscow, I would feel it. I would feel the tug of those additional 550 miles on my heart. I didn’t feel it, so I knew Imant was still in Riga. Something was wrong, something was not going right, and I could hardly bear to hear the daily news, with all its tantalizing references to detente. I couldn’t listen to it without experiencing sudden rushes of deep anger, like someone rejected. Could I sue the Soviet Union for breach of promise?

I had been sitting on the couch, gazing abstractedly at the telephone, when it occurred to me that it was going to ring; and then it rang.

Imant had not gone to Moscow. He was in Riga. But he had been able to telephone the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on December the seventh. It was now the ninth.

What he had told them was this: the authorities in Riga now said that he could not invite me to stay at the farmhouse, because the farmhouse was outside the area open to tourists. He would have to establish a residence in Riga. He would also have to become employed there.

These were evidently more ad hoc regulations, designed to hassle us, and yet we had no recourse against them. Fulfilling them could take up to a year.

A year! Another year!

The Helsinki Accords said requests for entry permits from persons wanting to marry persons in another signing state would be examined “favorably and on the basis of humanitarian considerations.” The Soviet Union said, in effect, we were fools for taking them at their word.

But Imant was already trying to do what the authorities said he had to do. He told the embassy he was in the process of moving back to Riga. Unfortunately, in the Soviet Union you can’t just pack your bags and move. He had to file a formal request for living space inside the city limits, and then he had to wait for an answer. And we knew what it was like to wait for an answer from the Soviet Union.

Imant also said, to the U. S. Embassy in Moscow, that he had sent me this information—he didn’t say how—”but I am afraid she will not get my notice,” and so he asked them to get it to me. This meant that, in our so-called era of détente, Imant, in order to get a message to me, had to telephone Moscow from Riga; the U.S. Embassy in Moscow cabled the U. S. Embassy in London; and the U. S. Embassy in London telephoned me in Burghfield Common.

In fact, Imant was very carefully and obediently meeting every task the Soviet authorities set for him. Like the youngest prince in the fairy tale, he managed to accomplish each assignment. But how many tasks would they set, and how long would they make him labor?

In all of this, what Imant had asked for was simply the right to do what the law (not to mention the ad hoc regulations) required. Montesquieu defined liberty as “the right to do everything which the laws allow.”

Justice can be realized only in freedom. If I met a Helmite who was looking for justice I would say, Go find freedom first. There is no such thing, it seems to me, as social rights without individual freedom: if justice is a kind of giving—even a kind of giving to the law—you have to be free to give. The state that simply confiscates what it wants—property or soul— works against itself, by denying its citizens the right to behave justly; it cuts the ground out from under its own version of law and order. That’s why any tyranny creates its own opposition: the people rescue their souls by demanding the right to relinquish them how they will. The point is that moral obligations depend on freedom; without it, they aren’t moral obligations. Legal obligations, maybe, social or economic or even religious obligations, but not moral. Moral obligations are those we legislate for ourselves. (In the same way, it’s because it’s possible to fall in love with many people that we pledge prior and lasting commitment to certain ones.)


Brezhnev and I had birthdays. He got a Czarist sword; I got a corkscrew. This seemed fair: I had very little use for a Czarist sword.

It snowed in Burghfield Common, insulating the house from neighborhood sounds. From the upstairs, I could see a layer of snow like a rug on the flat garage roof. One wayward rose was blooming.

The morning of Christmas Eve dawned cold and clear; the snow had melted overnight. The mail was mostly cards— except for a letter addressed to me. The address had been typed, cut out, and pasted onto the envelope, and it was mailed, with no return address, from Crawley. There’s an airport in Crawley.

Stunned, I opened it. The letter of invitation.

It was dated December the fifth, and in it Imant said all the essential things: that we were to be married, that he invited me to stay at his place, that he had applied to the Ministry of Culture in Riga for living space inside the city limits, that he could support me. I hardly knew how to react. . .what to do, now that I was holding, by some incredible stroke of good fortune and timing, this letter. I did what I suppose any woman would have done. I went out and bought myself an engagement ring.

Sooner or later, the Soviet Union would have to let us get married, wouldn’t they? I used my birthday present to open my Christmas present, and reflected that if I ever got to spend Christmas in my home with Imant in Latvia, I could send season’s greetings to Messrs. Nepesov and Nepesov at the Soviet Consulate in London.

Would I need one card or two?

* Even the Soviet Union subscribes to some such ideal of justice, though their system makes it next to impossible for the majority to be served, since the Soviet individual has no real right of appeal to the majority against the abuse of power by the bureaucratic elite.


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