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Moscow Kitchens, Moscow Nights

ISSUE:  Winter 1992

There I learned how faces fall apart, How fear looks out from under the eyelids, How deep are the hieroglyphics Cut by suffering on people’s cheeks.

Last summer when I was in Moscow, a play called Moscow Kitchens was running. Set in the 1960’s, it captured the flavor of the post-Stalin era when Soviet families, after having lived for years in communal flats, sharing a kitchen with five or six other families, at last had their own tiny flats, and the privacy of their own kitchen.

“It was the beloved room,” Maja Turovskaja told me, “our living room, our living kitchen.” Having spent her childhood in a communal flat with her parents, Maja recalled her feelings when, in the ‘60’s as a young married woman, the “new era” began. “The kitchen was an intimate place where our friends gathered to talk and have tea. That’s where our mental life existed.”

During the month I spent in the Soviet Union, just before the failed August coup, I talked with Soviet citizens who expressed thoughts and feelings that for years were uttered only in Moscow kitchens. Some were eager to talk, willing to have their names in print. Others, reflecting the uncertainty of the time, broke appointments for a second meeting: one, a student, hoped to complete his graduate studies in the U.S.; the other, editor of a journal, knew that journals that failed to toe the party line were deprived of paper. But when I asked Maja for permission to use her name, she shrugged. “If we have another dictator, we’ll all be shot.”

Igor Shaitanov, professor of English literature at Moscow Pedagogical University, confessed, “To speak freely, as I am speaking with you, ideas and thoughts we could not utter in the past, except to a few friends, has been more of a relief than I could have imagined. In the past, I taught my courses, spoke little with my students outside of the classroom, discussed with foreign colleagues only the subject of literature. That was all.” He told me that he was not a member of the Party, nor did he belong to a church, “because the priests with their privileges are part of the whole system.”

Yeltsin had just been inaugurated. His popularity was evident, but why had Gorbachev’s declined, I asked Igor.

“For two reasons: Gorbachev restricted the amount of vodka available to the people, and vodka has been the only means of filling the spiritual void in their lives.” For a moment, he hesitated. “You don’t know Russian. Gorbachev speaks incorrectly. He doesn’t complete sentences. His pronunciation is poor, he places the accent on the wrong syllable.” But Igor assured me, “It is easy to understand how Gorbachev rose to power in the Communist Party. Compared to Brezhnev and Krushchev, Gorbachev is a Cicero.”

At Peredelkino, where I stayed, I overheard one of the “key ladies” telling how, during the Andropov years, a functionary would approach someone shopping during lunch hour, flash his identity card, then ask the individual what he or she was doing. “Shopping. It’s my lunch hour.” “Not any more,” was the reply. “Get back to work.” There was no way to protest. Nor was there anything they could do about the special lane in the highways, set aside for Andropov, just in case he wanted to use it.

The average citizen knew only a life of fear. “We have a memory of ignorance,” Maja told me. “In 1965,1 traveled to the United States when my film Ordinary Fascism was shown there. My eyes were opened. For the first time, I saw normal life. We could not even imagine normal life.”


My visit to the Soviet Union was part of a cultural exchange program. Four writers went as guests of the Soviet Writers Union, to stay at the House for Writers at Peredelkino, a village 12 miles from central Moscow. The House for Writers, one of many in the USSR, is situated in a peaceful, forest setting, with walking paths, and gazebos, surrounded by dachas belonging to writers. Pasternak’s home is nearby. The large building in which we stayed was one of two; the lobby was like an old European hotel, with a long oriental-style red and mustard carpet, huge decorative urns in which there were sickly plants, overstaffed mustard plush armchairs and couches. My room was large, comfortably furnished, with a balcony, sleeping alcove, even a refrigerator, and my own bath. The older building, several yards away, built in classical style, with Ionic columns, looked like a scaled-down version of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. There were writers’ rooms, and a large dining room where we took our meals. Sitting in the sun outside of that building every day were two scruffy, neglected looking dogs and a cat, waiting to be fed.

During our stay, we visited Moscow, and what was still called Leningrad; we also saw something of the countryside. At Peredelkino and at Komarova, another Writers House outside of Leningrad, I was able to talk with Soviet writers and academics, but few office workers and no laborers or farmers.

I asked Igor, “If I could speak with average Soviet working people, what would they tell me? Do they feel about their lives, about the past, as you do?”

“Even more so. Of course, there are always those who are more concerned with eating than with free speech.”

According to Igor, the way Gorbachev burst upon the scene was unexpected. But, as Maja pointed out, “He did many important things. He destroyed the Socialist system. Even so, to be in opposition to Gorbachev is easier than to do something positive. To build is difficult. People have simply forgotten how to work. How can we destroy a system where people don’t work but get paid anyway?” Maja Turovskaja, a theatre critic and film-maker, was fired from her job at a radio station at age 23 because she is Jewish. She then turned to writing criticism. A tiny woman, with large, light, observing eyes, she projects intensity and strength. “I was fortunate,” she told me. “I went to a fine school, and had an exceptional father. But I was not the only child in my school whose father was taken away to the camps. I didn’t understand, of course. But when he returned, he was another person with other eyes.”

Nearly every adult I spoke with in the Soviet Union had either a mother, a father, a grandfather, at least one member of the family, who had been in prison or in the camps. Not all returned. At Peredelkino I noticed that some people walked with a cane, others had slightly twisted bodies. When I asked Tanya if those physical handicaps were the result of years in the camps, she replied, “Some of them.” Her own mother had been taken away by the militia, who had come initially for her father, but he was already dead. When her mother produced his death certificate, they took her away instead.

“After all these years of oppression,” Tanya pointed out, “we are not quite normal.” Tanya is not her real name. She spoke openly with me, but asked that I protect her anonymity.

Some Russian writers who sat at our table at Peredelkino did not speak English, and despite valiant efforts on their part and ours, communication was almost impossible. One older woman who wore thick-lensed glasses, sat in silence as we babbled in English, but always when she rose to leave the table, she bowed politely. One evening she finally succeeded in saying two words we understood: “Dostoyevsky” and “pisateley” (the Russian word for writer). After she gave up and sat at another table, we learned that she was a translator working on a biography of Dostoyevsky’s wife.

Then Katya sat with us. Although she is a translator of English, she spoke it with difficulty. She is the daughter of Vassily Grossman, author of Life and Fate, considered one of the finest novels to have come out of World War II. It existed only in manuscript until 1988, when it was published. “My father was never in prison,” Katya told me, “only his manuscript.” Katya has translated Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, among other American writers, and is now working on her memoirs. She had a girlish, smiling face, unlike most of the other residents at Peredelkino, who were as grim and unsmiling as the people I saw standing in the long lines in the city, or riding the crowded buses in Moscow and Leningrad. When we first arrived, few people at Peredelkino returned our smiles or our greetings, even when I tried my limited Russian. One man who was standing at the end of the path as we walked toward him, adjusted his bifocals in order to see us more clearly. But he did not return our greeting.

Those somber expressions, I decided, must be the years of fear and uncertainty engraved on their faces. Many adults look unhealthy, nearly all have bad teeth. Many women one sees in the streets, or in churches, are shapeless, the result of years of an unbalanced diet, their legs and feet swollen, their clothes without style. They spend their days carrying shopping bags to fill with whatever they can buy after hours of standing in line.

More than once, people told me, “Life is hard.” But I’m not sure that an American can possibly understand how hard it is to live without what we consider necessities, not just food, but commodities like toilet paper, aspirin, medicines, diapers. As we drove through Tula, a town near Tolstoy’s estate, I spotted a woman carrying in one hand a large shopping bag stuffed with rolls of mulberry colored toilet paper. In her free hand she carried two more rolls; her two children each carried four, their fingers grasping them tightly by the center tubes. How long had she waited in line? How long had they waited for this supply.

The visit to GUM, Moscow’s huge shopping mall, with its many confusing, endless, glass-enclosed corridors, had a nightmare quality. Shops were dimly lighted, very little merchandise was in them, and what we saw was of poor quality. Our interpreter rushed us through the maze of corridors as we hurried to keep up, for fear of losing sight of her.

One day I walked with Tanya along a street where most shops were closed. She translated the signs on the doors: “”Closed for technical reasons.” It simply means that they have nothing to sell,” Tanya explained.

I learned, however, that with dollars you can buy almost anything. There is a distinction between the “market,” where the privileged purchase what they want with hard currency, and the shops, where the rest of the people stand in line. On Saturdays, GUM is open only to privileged people. At the International Hotel complex (Armand Hammer), where parking costs $1.00 for every 15 minutes, there is a fully stocked supermarket.

Few with whom I spoke would discuss these puzzling contradictions in their Socialist society. One bright young man gave only imperceptible nods to some of my questions, as though his ambiguous nods could be considered yes or no, just in case someone was watching. When I asked about the new freedom to express themselves, he spoke carefully. “It isn’t easy for the older people.” He paused, looked away, “Even some young people are still afraid.” With an embarrassed smile, he added, “Americans live easy lives. Here, life is hard. Americans have flashing eyes; ours are staring.”

Working people spend lunch hours and after-work hours standing in lines; the woman of the house must try to figure out different ways to fix potatoes or kasha or cabbage, with perhaps a small amount of meat.

At Peredelkino and Komarova, however, we were amply fed, compared to the average Soviet citizen. At nearly every meal we had potatoes, rice, kasha, sour cream, cottage cheese, and bread. At breakfast, eggs, fish, or meat were served and always a slice of cheese. At the midday meal (dinner), soup was offered, usually quite good. There was fish, and chopped meat fixed in a patty called a cutlet. The potatoes were sometimes inside the meat patty, sometimes around it, sometimes next to it. I rarely detected onions in anything, and the only time I smelled garlic was on someone’s breath. The only fresh vegetables I saw were cucumbers and tomatoes, sometimes cabbage. Our napkins were triangles, one eighth of a paper napkin. There was no fresh fruit. Small plums or cherries were placed in the bottom of a glass of what I think was water. The fruit burst from the skin, the water clouded, so that the fruit looked like bits of body tissue preserved in formaldehyde.

The parties given in our honor, however, were festive. There were flowers on the table; always red caviar and sliced salami, sometimes smoked fish. Usually we had roast chicken. For dessert at one party we had delicious little pancakes called blinis, with red caviar. Despite vodka rationing, we had an abundance, as well as wine and champagne. There was much drinking, the many customary toasts, and extravagant expressions of eternal friendship. Vodka relaxes the Russians; they can drink quantities, and for a short while their grim faces are masked with merriment.

The Soviet government has treated its writers well, providing comforts other citizens don’t have. Members of the Writers Union are entitled to 28 days at one of the Writers Houses, usually free, or for a modest fee of about $1.00 a day. Writers have their own flats; an academic who also publishes may have an income that is five or six times that of the average Soviet citizen whose income is 280 rubles a month (a little more than about $10 U.S. dollars). But these privileges were granted because, under the Communist system, the State took most of the writer’s royalties. Thus living quarters, medical care, vacations, and other perks had to replace the income. So long as the writers stayed within the Party line, they were assured publication.

A poet said to me, half joking, “It was easier in the Brezhnev years,” meaning their was published; censors were too uneducated to understand metaphor, and writers were cared for by the government. Now, writers will depend on acceptance by individual publishing houses; without the patronage of the State, their future is uncertain. Igor admitted that with the shortage of food and rising prices, it was painful to contemplate the forthcoming winter.


After a week at Peredelkino, we boarded the Red Arrow, the midnight train from Moscow to Leningrad. On the way to the train we stopped to see the Red Square at night and to watch the changing of the Guard at Lenin’s tomb, a precisely executed ritual, so swift one’s eye can’t catch the movement as the two new guards, with escort, having stood briefly in silence before the tomb, replace the others.

Two of us shared a coupé, a small compartment with two narrow beds. When the train attendant brought us tall glasses of tea in silver holders, with cubes of sugar, I felt like Anna Karenina. At eight in the morning, we arrived in Leningrad, and drove through the quiet, gray city streets where women were sweeping with primitive brooms. Is this the city that inspired Pushkin to write, “Flaunt thy beauty, Peter’s City?”

Komarova is a country village about 35 miles from the city. Our rooms at the Writers House were small but comfortable. From my window I heard children’s voices, and soon learned we were surrounded by kindergartens and camps for young children, large pieces of property on which there was an assortment of playground equipment and a large house. City children are sent to camp for a month while their working parents remain at home. Sometimes as we rode into Leningrad, we’d pass a caravan of buses escorted by two police cars, bringing children to camp, or returning them home. Those called Pioneer Camps are for budding young Communists. I was intrigued by the large wooden Victorian houses with lacy white trim and turrets, on nearly every camp property. They were built for the children, I was told, but that seemed unlikely, and only after several inquiries I learned they were Finnish architecture, built in the early part of this century on what was once part of Finland.

Leningrad “rests on the bones of its builders,” Joseph Brodsky wrote, but he also called it “the most beautiful city on the face of the earth.” Our guide at the Hermitage, a learned man who likes American writing, especially the words of Ezra Pound and James Fenimore Cooper, corrected me when I called his city Leningrad, although at that time, the matter had not been officially settled.

But the people of Leningrad have more important concerns than the name of their once beautiful city. If you look at the sweep of elegant facades edging the Neva River and the canals under a broad expanse of sky, or stand in the Palace Square outside of the Hermitage, you can imagine that if Venice and Paris had a baby, it would have been Leningrad. While photographs of the city still dazzle, closer inspection reveals a city that is fading, like an aging, once-beautiful actress. Buildings need repair, courtyards are neglected. Inside those majestic structures, in enormous apartments once occupied by the wealthy, families are still crowded into communal flats, as many as five families, 25 or more people, who must share one kitchen and bath.

In contrast to the deteriorating buildings of Leningrad is the opulence of the Pushkin Palace. Built in the 18th century, it is a masterpiece of Baroque style, nearly 304 meters long, painted a brilliant deep turquoise with white trim, surrounded by a vast expanse of formal gardens. The carved figures that decorate the exterior of the building were painted ochre after it was found that the gold disintegrated rapidly in the damp climate. The interior, however, is ornately decorated with elaborate carvings painted in gold leaf, silk wall coverings, wall-paintings, intricately patterned parquet floors, each room more dazzling than the other. The Great Hall appears in daylight to be made of gold and crystal, and one can only imagine it as it must have looked at night when thousands of candles were lighted, and the glass doors were opened to the gardens. The Palace was deliberately bombed by the Germans in World War II. Now, at an expense that is incalculable, the government is having the many-roomed edifice restored with minute accuracy by skilled artisans.

“If there are sufficient funds to restore places like the Pushkin Palace, should the West provide money for the Soviet Union?” I asked Tanya.

She was firm in her answer. “The West should think carefully. The present generation is demoralized by conditions under which they have lived. Better to send experts to teach us than to send money. We are masters at squandering.”


While in Leningrad we were invited to the Writers Union Bookshop by the director, Marina Podryachivova, to meet the Russian poet Alexander Kushner, who spoke no English, and Maria Shereshevsky, a translator. We huddled around Marina’s desk in her tiny, book-lined office, drinking good coffee and brandy with delicious cakes. The roses on her desk filled the air with fragrance. Marina, a tall, impressive woman, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, smiled at us with pleasure as we talked, her strong features filled with wisdom and kindness. Later, I learned that she had lived through the siege of Leningrad. Maria Shereshevsky, having just completed a translation of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, confessed that his style was a challenge. Interest in James has revived; a six-volume edition of his work is being published. Portrait of a Lady, which Maria co-translated, has sold 200,000 copies. “All my friends, from my dressmaker to my fellow academics loved it. They’re eager to read about life in the West.”

The Soviet people are readers; before the paper shortage, a book of poetry, published in an edition of 100,000 might swiftly sell out. They especially love American writing, and their translators are as highly regarded as their writers. Zinaida Alexandrovna, a translator, and the compiler of the Dictionary of Russian Synonyms, has translated 19th-century American writers such as Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain for the Library of American Literature, which is publishing all major American writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Each prose volume was issued in an edition of 100,000. Some have sold out. The anthology of American poetry was issued in an edition of 50,000.

In Russia if you see a truck driver sitting in his cab, eating his lunch, he will probably be reading a book. It is one of the many contradictions of the Soviet Union that its people, despite decades of fear and hardship, have a lower illiteracy rate than that of the United States.

In a country where much of the population is literate, where a stadium can be filled for a poetry reading, I found communication difficult. It was not just the language barrier. There seemed to be a kind of fog of incomprehension. Even when Russians spoke to each other it was often with intense effort to comprehend; their voices rose, the tone seemed contentious; words were repeated back and forth, round and round. Was it the result of having for years to think carefully before they spoke? When I talked with people like Maja, Tanya, or Igor, people whose minds were clear as to what they thought and who did not hesitate to say it, there was no problem. But our bright young translator who translated the words of Russian guides with ease, invariably said “Wot?” when we spoke to her in English. She had no hearing problem, but perhaps needed time to think through her answer; or did she simply not want to understand? For instance, I asked about the schedule for the courtesy bus into Moscow, provided for residents of Peredelkino. As translator, working for the Writers Union, she must have known of this daily bus.

“Wot? Wot bus? Autobus?”

“There is a daily bus from here into Moscow.”


“Yes. The schedule is posted, but it’s in Russian.”

“Wot posted?”

And so it went on. When we asked her if we might go someplace or another, she’d reply, “Yes, it’s impossible,” thus covering herself for yes or no.

Nothing is done quickly in the Soviet Union. It is as difficult to get a phone number as it is to get a good phone connection. It can take days to have photocopies made. Information is not given freely. My plane landed in Moscow four hours behind schedule, but I assumed that airline personnel in Moscow could track the rerouting of passengers as simply as we can in the U.S., and that someone from the Writers Union would meet me. It was late at night, the airport dimly lit and gloomy. No one was there. Later I learned that such routine flight information is not given in the Soviet Union.

I learned more about the cumbersome, tangled bureaucracy when I tried to obtain a copy of a letter written to a Russian by a 19th-century American philosopher now housed in Soviet Archives, Nina, a translator, agreed to phone on my behalf to make an appointment. First she spent time trying to get the unlisted phone number of the Lenin State Library; we tried several phones before we had a good connection. I heard her repeating the explanation to a series of people regarding my request, until she apparently succeeded in reaching the right official, and an appointment was made. I went into Moscow, with translator, and my validating documents, to meet with the official, who wasn’t there. After another hour, a clerk informed me that a copy of the letter would be given only in exchange for a letter from our American archives. When I was on my way into Moscow to try again, Maja warned me, “Don’t bother. In Russia you have to go every day for three weeks and see someone different each time until you get what you need.” I was relieved.

The air quality around Moscow and Leningrad is almost unbreathable, for there are no emission controls. Their cars, made by one company, are small, boxy, old Fiat style models that cost about 20,000 rubles (roughly $740) but because the demand is so much greater than the supply, the black market price of a car can be from 80,000 to 120,000 rubles. I was told they are of poor quality, often in need of repairs after one year. Many motorists drive twice the speed limit. Our driver in Leningrad, who skillfully dodged potholes and pedestrians at 120 kilometers an hour, slowed down to 60 when he spotted the militia. Fifty rubles for speeding. Motorists signal with their headlights to warn fellow drivers that the militia are ahead. Roads are poorly maintained; for long stretches on a four-lane highway, there are no markings, guard-rails on the sides of the road are broken. The countryside in the environs of Moscow and Leningrad is flat. There are open fields and farmland, much like the U.S. Midwest, except for the birch trees and the massive blocks of flats, some 20 stories high, out in the middle of nowhere.

Perhaps the most puzzling paradox in this Socialist state is that every citizen seems to be an entrepreneur, from the taxi driver who drove me through the dark Moscow night to Peredelkino, to my last unfortunate encounter as I left the country.

It is a land of small “businessmen,” who have learned to survive by conducting a trade. After I’d seen the long lines outside of Lancôme on Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad, I remarked to Igor that living conditions can’t be too bad if people can afford to buy expensive cosmetics. “They’re buying it to sell at a profit,” he informed me. The taxi driver told me he worked for a company, but with no meter in his Mercedes, how much of the $27 I paid him would go to the company? Some taxi drivers will sell caviar or amber beads. The “key ladies” at the hotels sell sweaters or blouses; on street corners, at tourist sites, or along the highways, people sell fur hats, watermelons, cold drinks, freshly picked berries; at one street stand where they sold raspberries and dried fish, I saw a few shriveled carrots for sale. There are street musicians everywhere, even at the Pushkin palace, where a formally dressed flutist and guitarist played 18th-century music, an elegant contribution pot discretely placed. At the open markets, individual tradespeople spread their souvenirs: matrioshka dolls, jewelry, or artwork on a small table. But in order to have their tiny space, they must pay off the “mafia” (party officials); if they don’t, the consequences to themselves or their families, are severe. There are also strolling “salesmen” at open markets and tourist sites, hustlers who hover beside you as you walk along, press close, pull up their jacket sleeve to display an arm covered with watches. If you try to brush them away with “NYET!” they ask sullenly, “Why not?”

On a warm Sunday we visited Zagorsk, 64 kilometers northeast of Moscow. As we approached we caught sight of the golden domes of the monastery churches against the blue sky. It looked like an imaginary city, an illustration for a fairy tale. Zagorsk was the center of the Russian Orthodox Church during most of the Soviet period, until 1988, when the Patriarch returned to Moscow. Inside these churches, I was surprised to see not just older people, as I’d seen in other churches, but many young Russians not tourists, there to worship. I also noticed, parked outside the churches, the long, shiny black limousines. They belonged, I was told, to the priests. And also standing outside the churches were lines of beggars, their cupped hands held out.

When I returned from Zagorsk, I told Maja I was surprised to see those beggars, and the long shiny cars in a Socialist country. She glanced at me, before turning her head away as she repeated cynically, “Socialist country!”

The following day, I walked to the tiny 15th-century church at Peredelkino in time for the evening service. The poorly dressed villagers lined up to buy candles for a few kopeks. Next to the church was an extensive walled compound, behind which was an elaborate residence for the priest.

For years Soviet citizens have observed party officials, from petty functionaries to top-rank bureaucrats, openly enjoy privileges and luxuries, while they struggled with deprivation. Thus, as resentment has festered, people have found their own ways to beat the system, and dishonesty has become a way of life. The result is a kind of lethargy of demoralization. How can they establish a market economy in the Soviet Union without first untangling the complex web of corruption that has been spun for decades? “No country has mastered the art of destroying its subjects’ souls as well as Russia,” Joseph Brodsky has written.

An intelligent young woman in her early twenties expressed bitterness that her parents, both professionals who have worked hard all their lives, still live in a two-room flat that she must share with them. She has her own tiny room; theirs serves as bedroom, living room, guest room. The day before I left Russia, she spoke more openly and bitterly than others about Gorbachev.

“Gorbachev has come up through the ranks of the Party, and he is as corrupt as the others. The reason we have such problems with supplies being shipped is because the corrupt party officials falsify documents; they take bribes, reroute shipments of goods; they do anything to put money in their own pockets.”

We were standing near Gorky Park as we talked, and she turned to point to a tall building in the distance. “You see that? It is a luxury hotel, built and maintained only for top Party officials in the Soviet, and all over the world, who visit Moscow. They stay at the expense of the State. Those who have been inside say it is the height of elegance.”

But in contrast to those telling moments, when Russians expressed their feelings of bitterness, there were times when one was overwhelmed by the conviviality of the Russian people, and the softness of a Moscow night. At one of the Peredelkino parties before we left, a gathering of writers and translators sat around a table in a gazebo with the Americans, to toast our farewells: Volodya, who translates from the Japanese; Inna, now working on Charles Johnson (she’d struggled that day with the term “wing-tipped shoes”); Maurice, who translates from the French; Nina, now translating John Updike; Igor and his wife, and Maja. It was a cool evening; the leaves of the trees sharp black against a sky bright with a full moon. Everyone was in good spirits, talking and joking, their faces aglow in the moonlight. Nina gave a dramatic, comical recitation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and our hilarity heightened as we joined her in lines we remembered.

The director of Peredelkino came, a tall, fine-looking man in his sixties, who brought some food which he placed on the table, then shyly stood to one side, perhaps because he spoke no English. But finally, after considerable prodding, he was persuaded to sing “Moscow Nights.” He had a light tenor voice, and soon the Russians joined him. I couldn’t understand the words, but the melody and their gentle voices captured the poetry of the evening. Maja whispered to me, “The words are simple:—

“It is silent, you don’t hear any rustle. All is quiet until tomorrow morning. The little river flows and it doesn’t flow. The moon is silver. You will never forget this Moscow night.”

“It is a scene out of Tennessee Williams,” Maja added.

“With a touch of Chekhov,” I suggested.


Before I left Russia, Tanya invited me to a farewell lunch at the Writers Union restaurant. Crab salad, sliced spiced meat, with cucumbers and tomatoes to start, chicken Kiev, browned potatoes, wine. For dessert, a rare treat, a delicious little cake with cream filling, and a cup of excellent coffee. Although Tanya and I spoke of the possibility of a future meeting, we knew that we might not see each other again. We drank a toast to Yeltsin, and to Russia’s future.

“We can’t go back now,” Tanya told me. “The process has begun, and we can’t reverse it any more than we can reverse the process of birth. But,” she lifted her glass, “let us drink to the birth of the new Russia. We cannot expect it to be painless, but may it be a healthy, normal baby.”

At dawn, the following day, on the way to the airport, the air was already grey with pollution; the windows of the stark blocks of flats were lighted, people waking up to another day of lines.

As I went through passport control, I met my last Russian “entrepreneur.” Through a travel agent’s error, the departure date on my visa was noted as two days prior to my actual departure. A young man, in his early twenties, seated in a glass-enclosed booth, looked at the visa, then at me, pointed to the date, and although I knew he didn’t understand a word, I explained it was an error, showed him my plane ticket with the departure date. All he said was, “Problem.”

Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the dawn departure and my grogginess, I’d have had my wits about me. But, even after four weeks in Russia, where every small service required some sort of “gift,” it didn’t enter my mind that even at passport control, bribes were necessary. So I waited. He must have had a signal button because soon, another “official” appeared, took my passport and visa, disappeared for a while, eventually returned with passport and visa, and departed hurriedly. The young man again said, “Problem.” Then he said, “Fifty dollars.”

“I don’t have 50 dollars.”

He held up two fingers, presumably for the two-day delay. “Ten dollars each.”

I don’t have 20 dollars.” From my wallet I removed all of my American money: two fives and eight singles, indicating he could have it all. He shook his head, perhaps realizing, that was, indeed, all the cash I had. I passed the fives to him, picked up my eight singles, and went through to board my plane. Just another “independent businessman,” I reminded myself. Even so, I felt angry and a little saddened.


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