TWO CHAPTERS from NEVER OUT OF REACH
That surreal demonstration in the street of Tallinn at the age of six can, however, be seen as a kind of synecdoche not only for my childhood and youth in the Soviet context but also for something very personal, devoid of any context, a microcosm hinting perhaps at those "things under heaven and earth" which Hamlet posed against science.
The pattern of my whole life has been to live dangerously close to the flames -sometimes so close as to get burnt - then right at the last moment to run away, catch my breath, live quietly for a time - and then face yet another fire.
My first sexual experience, at the age of eighteen, was with a lovely and romantic nun from the Moscow monastery where I was for a while employed as a teacher of English. It was painful for me to part from her when her monk brother intervened, but fortunately he wasn't of a murderous disposition.
Then one day I discovered that my closest friend in Russia, the man I had trusted wholeheartedly and confided in, had betrayed me. Still, in the end it didn't matter, though it left a scar.
A drunken captain came to my workplace in Riga brandishing his pistol and threatening to shoot me. As luck would have it I was out buying booze to celebrate our boss's birthday and missed him by a whisker.
My brushes with the Soviet secret police, whose long arm tried to get to me even later outside the country, could have ended disastrously for me. Almost by a fluke - or miracle - they didn't.
At the height of my nervous breakdown in London I became fascinated with Soho and its prostitutes. During my last and nearly lethal escapade I was saved by a tough policewoman.
However, the nearest I got to total self-destruction was through supposedly beautiful things: romantic love and religious faith, along the banks of the Thames, in London, Reading and Oxfordshire. Love and faith led me merrily along and down an alcoholic path which, amazingly, opened into a teetotal high road leading to better things.
I shall describe all those events when I come to them, in a more or less chronological order, but the weird sensation occasionally gripping me for a split second that I may have some kind of a guardian angel dates back to that little declamatory walk along a Tallinn street. I did, after all, have an inexplicable sense of relief after it, when I was back home, and I still remember the happiness which enveloped me as if I'd just escaped some grave danger.
On the whole, my contemporaries and I accepted the political and social conditions imposed by the Soviet Union. We could not draw comparisons, since we knew very little about the freedoms and traditions of the western democracies. The BBC and Voice of America, which we tried to listen to in our search for information, were usually jammed. So we lived, quite contentedly, on two levels .On the one hand we criticized - within our own circle of friends - the obvious lack of freedom in our country, while on the other, being young and educated, we enjoyed life.
Walking through the corridors of Student House, the main building of the University of Moscow, we exchanged snide jokes about walking on the bones of Stalin's prisoners who had been engaged in building it. But this did not stop us from relishing the excellent food served in the "National Dishes" canteen. Nor did it prevent us from enjoying our privileged position as students in the greatest university in the country. In the university cinema we watched films which were not on general release - Tarkovsky's "Andrey Rublev," for instance. Most students, including myself, who came from other cities, fell in love with Moscow and were proud of our faculty's being in its very heart, facing the Kremlin and Red Square. We went to theatres and cinemas, art galleries and student balls, and in spring and summer we liked to walk in the large gardens of the Faculty of Biology. As future graduates of the State University of Moscow, we had good job prospects. And in our third year we moved from our Hall of Residence annex, where we lived four to a room, to the main building where conditions were simply regal: only two people per room, though the rooms were half the size. Amid such privileges, politics receded into the background. We exchanged quick glances when our lecturer in Party History urged us to talk about the achievements rather than the shortcomings of the Stalin era. We nudged each other when our lecturer in biology - in 1968, mark you - referred respectfully to the murderer of Soviet genetics (and geneticists) Lysenko, affectionately calling him by his first name and patronymic Trofim Denisovich. But on the whole we were living it up.
"We" were only dozens out of thousands of students at the University. "One should swim with the stream, with the tide," so my sister's father-in-law urged me - an old man who had survived Stalin's occupation of Bessarabia. Indignant as I was with this whole approach, I nevertheless also swam with the tide. Even among those of us who held dissident views there were differences of opinion. One young man who had no illusions about the Soviet system was ready to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968. "We can't give up Czechoslovakia, can we?" he challenged me. Another one, while disliking the invasion, nevertheless thought that the regime simply had no choice as during the Prague Spring Czechoslovakia had been flooded by thousands of West German agents who had subsequently seeped into the USSR. He had got this "top secret" information from his father, a high-ranking university professor, who, in turn, had heard it at a closed session of the senior teaching staff. This sort of thing, surely spread about by the KGB, helped to explain the throttling of Czechoslovakia to the doubting intelligentsia. And explanation is almost acceptance, and the step from acceptance to justification is also a short one.
My fellow students reacted with some respect but even more with sarcasm when I appeared at a University poetry evening. On that occasion I read, among other poems, one which was really about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. This poetry evening took place only a few months after the events there, and my "Verses on Silence" spoke of "the silence of conscience in the cells of oppression and lies" and about troops inured to "obliterating frontiers with their jack-boots."
To forestall any questions I had prepared a reply - to wit, that those verses were about American society and American troops in Vietnam. How many people understood - and how much they understood - I cannot tell: yes, the students clapped, the shrewd editors of literary magazines sitting as adjudicators and the representatives of the university authorities did not seem to react, no questions followed - but I was never invited to take part in a poetry evening again. My friends said afterwards that I had taken an unnecessary risk, since Czechoslovakia was of no interest to anybody anywhere and was anyhow a dead loss. If one was to take risks, they all concluded, it had better be for something more worthwhile, like democratic freedoms within the USSR itself. In this way they, without realizing it, were reacting in exactly the way that the state ideologists would have wanted. For there is only one way to take a moral stand against a totalitarian ideocratic system - and one has to take a stand and not be tempted by its occasional charms. It is to have no truck with it at all, and that includes total rejection of the rules of its logic. If you argue that, in spite of his crimes, Hitler did give the German people full employment, or that you don't condone Stalin's misdeeds but have to admit his achievements in respect of the industrialization of the country, then you're already tainted with ideological leprosy.
Fighting the ideology, however, was almost futile: it penetrated everywhere, into the most secret recesses of the mind and into the unconscious. That's why, I think, it would be truer to describe our life in the Soviet Union not even as two-faced but as simply having a second dimension. It was as if our day to day existence as ordinary Soviet young people was accompanied everywhere by a shadow.
Underneath that ambivalence, though, was another, much more serious and complex and confusing one, irresistibly clamoring for attention. For there had been and still were aspects of the regime that were positive and humane, both before Stalin and after him, in my own lifetime, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. I'm talking about the periods that were autocratic, authoritarian or oligarchic rather than totalitarian - a phenomenon I'm tempted to term "socialism with a humanoid face."
My parents welcomed the "freedoms" brought about by the Revolution: my father, because they saved him from the poverty of his family, and my mother, because they allowed her to escape (temporarily, as it had turned out) the oppressive religious atmosphere at her home. Father, born in 1908, went to primary school under the Tsarist regime. As a snack he took with him old crusts of bread, because there was no other bread in the house. Other children were from more well-to-do families, and he felt ashamed of his poverty. So, at the age of seven, on his own, unassisted, he made up the lie that it was the doctor who'd ordered him to eat only the fossilized crusts, to strengthen his weak gums.
The whole town of Gomel was owned by Prince and Field Marshal, hero of the Crimean War Ivan Paskevich who died in 1856. In 1916 his daughter-in-law Irina gave a Christmas party in their sumptuous palace to which she invited all children whose fathers were at the front during the First World War. Father's mother immediately rushed to look for decent clothes for him - shoes, trousers, jacket - and for herself too, because her own clothes were also too poor. So they all ran to and fro and finally succeeded in borrowing a jacket and a pair of shoes from their travelling merchant neighbor across the street. (A wealthy man, indeed!) His son had a small foot, so the shoes were too tight for my father. As a result of all that fussing about they were late for the Christmas tree lighting and got to the palace when all the Christmas presents had already been given out. Father was standing on the staircase crying. A woman coming down the stairs - a maid or governess - asked his mother why the boy was crying. She explained. The kindly woman straightaway went and brought a present. Then she took the boy by the hand so that he could join other children holding hands dancing around the Christmas tree. She wanted to take his present away from him - only for a while, to make it easier for him to hold other children's hands - but he clutched it and wouldn't let go. And so he danced, grasping their hands and his present. His hands being wet, on account of the sweat and the wiped-off tears, the little package slipped out of them and fell on the floor. All the sweets were immediately trampled under the children's feet. He ran out of the round dance and burst into tears. They began to pick up the sweets and anything else that had remained, to give it back to him, while he went on and on sobbing.
The post-revolutionary Russia opened all doors for these penniless Jewish children from the Pale of Settlement, and they entered the new bright reality with all the enthusiasm and idealism of youth. The moment the Young Pioneers League was created in 1922 my father rushed to join. (According to him, my mother became one of the very first Young Communist League members - something she vehemently denied.)
In the late 1920s my mother's brother, a young hothead, nearly killed a neighbor who'd tried, illegally, through his connections with some higher-ups, to grab a piece of their family's house (that was the time when everybody had to live in cramped quarters - including, incidentally, the above-mentioned Prince Paskevich's daughter-in-law, who had to move from their grand palace to an ordinary small flat). The man was taken to hospital (having recovered, he never came back) and my uncle was sentenced to two years in a penal colony for adolescents. That was the time when the country invested heavily in the future of her children, including rehabilitation of young criminals, the time described most movingly by one of the world's greatest educators Anton Makarenko in his timeless work Epic of Education. According to my mother, the one and a half years the two had been commuted to he had to spend in that colony - just outside the town, surrounded by nature, like a resort home - were quite happy. The young people were treated and fed well and were allowed frequent visits from their relatives (if they had any, that is: many children were guttersnipes as a result of the Civil War and the following Military Communism).
Looking from afar at the cruel and corrupt state of affairs in Russia today, the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, with the elderly begging in the streets, I can't help wondering. In my time no one went hungry. Everybody worked, there was no unemployment. And with all the bureaucracy and hierarchies there still seemed to be more caring for ordinary folks, what's called in America "the little guy," than there appears today. As a boy in Riga I witnessed my mother's night-time complaint to the Party man on duty regarding a long-distance call to Tashkent. The telephone exchange girl on the line was rude to her saying she was too busy. It was essential for Mother to talk to her sister whose little child was sick. Mother got the Party Headquarters number from Directory Inquiries and phoned them when it was past midnight. The man on duty on the other end of the line took the details. Ten minutes later the telephone exchange lady phoned, profusely apologized and without further ado connected Mother with Tashkent. When struggling to get the exit visa, one of Mother's arguments was the fact that Father, a communist and therefore a supposedly ethical man, had left her with no alimony, no financial support of any kind. The Party Secretary almost begged her to submit a written complaint: "We'll make him pay dearly for that kind of immoral behavior!" "Just let me leave the country and go to my brother's," she insisted. And finally they did.
"THE THUG COPPED IT".
In school I was an active Pioneer and, thanks to my sociability and my gift for speaking and declaiming poetry, took part in various ideological school jamborees. Once, when I was about fifteen, our school was designated as the "Pavlik Morozov" school. That young Pioneer hero was an important martyr in the Soviet pantheon. During the collectivization years, he had informed on his own parents for attempting to hide their grain and prevent its being requisitioned by the government. Such requisitioning would have meant starvation for a peasant family. To be informed upon meant either being shot out of hand or deportation to Siberia and a lingering death there. The boy - if he existed at all and if Soviet history is to be trusted - was knifed by his grandfather for being an informer, and so died.
A bust was solemnly unveiled in our school vestibule. All day Pioneers stood on guard on both sides of it, relieved every hour. I, with my school pal Zhenia (short for Yevgeny) Konyaev, had the honor of being assigned the first watch. At the most solemn moment, when the entire school stood motionless before this bust and our Pioneer leader (scout-mistress might be the British equivalent) had reached the dramatic climax of her speech, we were to break ranks, come up to the bust of the young hero, salute him with a Pioneer salute and, dividing in military fashion, take up our positions on either side of him.
And so, there we were, standing with our backs to the assembled crowd, looking straight ahead and saluting the fallen hero. Behind us, our leader in a trembling voice was saying: "And that's how the Enemy butchered our Pavlik". And then my pal added in an all but inaudible whisper: "And a good job, too!"
I began to choke with a quite uncontrollable fit of the giggles, and tears came to my eyes. In a couple of seconds I would have to turn round and face the entire school. I started coughing strenuously. Choked with my simulated cough and still with tears bursting in my eyes I took up my place of honor on the left side of the memorial. When I had turned right round, I was afraid to look at the faces in front of me. But everybody must have thought I had a bad cold or was even overcome by emotion and no one gave me suspicious looks.
Laughter did help to counteract the brainwashing, but it did not save, for the sheer repetition of slogans poisoned your mind, however much you may have derided them. To resist them you needed a stronger foundation.
My attitude to the outside world I owed to my mother. Until my final exit from the country at the age of twenty-one, the influence she had exerted on me from childhood was at mortal odds with the whole colossal state machine.
When I was about sixteen, I read or heard for the first time how there had been a mass shedding of hysterical tears at the death of Stalin. This phenomenon seemed odd to me: for even those with a direct experience of suffering under him or who had known only too well the abject terror which had gripped the country - even they indulged in heart-felt weeping. I found out that some of those who had been preparing themselves to become his next victims had also wept for him. Among such, for instance, were many Jews who, after the notorious "Doctors' Trial", had expected any day to be loaded into cattle-trucks. These transports had already been shunted at the larger terminus towns in European Russia, their destination being Siberia… The lamentation on the part of the doomed for their executioner seemed like a mass psychosis, and I asked my mother: "It looks as if everybody was shedding tears when Stalin died. Did you cry too, mother?"
Mother was indignant at my question and answered me scornfully: "The thug copped it - and I should cry?"
One story which she told me a number of times in my early years, probably wishing to impress it on my memory, shook me profoundly.
It referred to an event in Gomel, her birth-place, in the mid-twenties, towards the end of the period of the so-called New Economic Policy. One day her grandfather, a simple, semi-literate, pious old man was arrested by the security police. At that time the psychopathic nature of the state took the form of suspecting everyone of hoarding gold. One glance at that impecunious family should surely have been enough to show how ridiculous such a suspicion was. But at that period persecution of religion was also being stepped up, and it is possible that the search for gold was only a pretext for the local Cheka to make the arrest. Perhaps the authorities wished to intimidate other believers by making an example of my great grandfather, loved and respected as he was by the townsfolk. The time, however, was still "vegetarian" - to use the word Anna Akhmatova applied to it, in contrast to the later time which might have been termed "cannibalistic". People in the town began to say: "Well, if folk like old Stambler, who wouldn't hurt a fly, get arrested..." And the authorities relented. When, three or four months after his arrest, the old man unexpectedly returned home, his own wife, who opened the door to him, did not recognize him. "Can I help you? Who are you looking for?" she asked.
Before releasing him, they had extracted from him a signed undertaking that he would never tell anyone about what had happened to him while in custody. And indeed, he must have been so frightened by the security police that he never told anybody just what they had done to him in their cellars.
My unconscious and conscious search for identity which was woven into my life in the course of all those years could to a large extent be explained by radical differences between my mother and my father.
My father, who used to tick me off for my "too negative" approach to the Soviet system, was an experienced journalist with many years of professional practice behind him. After beginning his career as a lieutenant in the Navy during what the Soviets called the Great Patriotic War, he ended up as a front-line reporter with the rank of major. He was a member of the Communist Party, and the Party appreciated his journalistic talents.
FATHER: You silly boy, what do you know about the Revolution to poke fun at it so glibly! It removed the pale of settlement; we Jews - especially the poor ones - were freed and could pursue any career we wanted. The idealized image your mother has of pre-revolutionary Jewish life is false through and through, and she herself knows it! I shall always remember one episode that has deeply impressed my child's mind. I was around six or seven, so it must have been in the middle of the first decade of the century. My father - your grandfather Abraham - was, as you know, a cabinet-maker and a carpenter. We were a poor family. Once a very rich man in our town commissioned my father to make him some furniture - cupboards, sofas, tables or shelves - that sort of stuff, worth a lot of money. My father delivered the goods, but the man wouldn't pay. My father took me along - I must have been about seven or eight - when he went to his house, two or three times, to ask for the money owed him. The wealthy man kept putting the payment off under various pretexts, blaming the creditors or the War - the First World War in progress at the time - or simply saying he just happened to be out of money at that moment and asking him to come again later. Then one evening my mother went instead of him, again taking me along. There was a big dog in the yard of their rich house: usually it was on a chain but on that occasion it happened to be untied. It jumped at us, and my mother was so terrified she screamed at the top of her voice. We ran for our lives. I've had an uncontrollable fear of dogs ever since. We never got paid, not even a penny, by that man who was loaded with money. I welcomed the Revolution with all my heart. When the Young Pioneers Association was created in 1922 I became one of its very first members.
MOTHER: Your father's made that all up. Being an atheist, he would have - lies come easily to these people. Can you really believe that a religious man, part of a religious community - all Jews, mind you, were religious then, before the communists came, eternal damnation upon them - can you imagine an Orthodox and surely bearded Jew refusing to pay what he owed for the furniture ordered by him? Can you? For I surely can't!
Once - to be more precise, in the early thirties - in a medium-sized town in Belorussia there lived a girl. She worked as an assistant book-keeper in one of the local enterprises which had been set up after the Revolution. One day a girlfriend of hers with whom she worked asked her: "Would you like to meet a nice boy?" All her friends had already got admirers, although she was prettier than any of them, and she longed to have one as well. But she kept her feelings to herself and answered with a proud show of indifference: "To meet a boy? I have no time for that sort of thing." Her friend, however, did bring the boy along. He came to their work place towards knocking-off time, and she could immediately tell by his excited manner that he liked her. He began to tell her about himself: he was a visitor in the town, his permanent home being in Moscow where he was studying at a naval school and also taking some journalism courses. For a girl from a provincial town the image of a student from the big city was full of glamour and romance. And he spoke beautifully, like a book. After her work was over, he insisted on seeing her home, even though she didn't want him to. Now all her acquaintances - and in a small town everybody knows each other - could see that she was going out with a boy. At her gate he asked for her work phone number. Surely she would never have given it him! But she felt so embarrassed standing there with a strange young man - and her parents might at any moment come out of the house and then she would definitely have died of shame. So, just to get rid of him, she gave him the number, hoping he wouldn't use it.
But he did use it - and the very next day too!
Just before he was supposed to call for her at work - again towards the end of the day - she asked her girlfriend: "Vera, listen, this boy is not from these parts - so how does he know old Abraham Dubnov? When he insisted on seeing me home yesterday we bumped into old Dubnov - and they greeted each other so warmly they might have known each other for years."
Vera burst out laughing. "You silly girl, he's old Dubnov's son. He just happened to leave here as a teenager to get his higher education in a big city."
The young man started to come every day to see her home from work, and in a few months' time they got married. Her mother didn't attend the wedding: the groom was totally secular, whereas she had wanted a religious son-in-law, a scholar proficient in the Bible and the Talmud. He took his bride with him to Leningrad where he was enrolled in the Naval Academy. She was glad to leave her native Gomel and the many pressures from her family.
My mother didn't like to talk about it, but the story goes in the family that she'd run away from home in her late teens, to ride horses and drive tractors on a collective farm.
Mother considered Father a good-natured well-meaning trust-everyone wimp. She liked to tell a story about his having been offered the editorship of a major newspaper – a definite promotion since he'd been a deputy editor at a lesser publication. He shared the good news with an ambitious colleague who immediately rushed to the big newspaper's editorial offices and offered his own services. The paper's top brass weighed his candidacy against my father's and in the end preferred the former.
My father had been a naval officer and then war correspondent. Mother regarded his military fortitude as indicative not of courage but of recklessness. She taunted him for being spineless and incapable of standing up for himself, for not fighting for promotion to the next military rank and not defending his honor before an ungrateful and abusive air force general.
The Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad began on November, 19, 1942. Within four days the 330,000 strong German forces had been encircled. The Red Star war correspondent Captain Leonid Dubnov (he would be promoted to major in the spring of 1945) alighted from Polikarpov U-2 plane and went to look for the group commander, Colonel Sedov. The man had attracted his attention for having been much more successful than other air force commanders in dropping food and ammunition for defenders of Stalingrad earlier in the month. While other air regiments' supplies, due to conditions in the air and on the ground, mostly fell into the Volga or behind the German lines, Sedov's squadrons managed to get over a half of their cargoes through to where they were so badly needed.
The regiment was stationed in a village, the military lodging in houses, and regiment offices and airfield services being housed in huts.
The captain was a sturdy man of average height, five foot seven or thereabouts, with a strikingly handsome face. He walked resolutely past depots of arms, parachutes, mobile aircraft workshops, looking for the regiment HQ. The snow that had been falling throughout the day had changed to sleet and had stopped by the time of the captain's arrival. The weather had turned bitterly cold. The village street was a dangerous glaze of ice, but the captain somehow managed to keep his balance and with the whistling wind whipping against his face walked on and still on with disciplined, military self-assurance. Gazing at the crisp snow blanketing the street and giving an involuntary shiver in the chill air, he wondered what kind of man Colonel Sedov would turn out to be. Just before the HQ a road opened between two huts, filled with potholes, leading to a bright boundless field. Behind the fence which marked the end of the village and the beginning of paddocks or grazing ground the airfield could be seen in with some dozen Yakovlev Yak-7b fighter planes, as well as aircraft which flew the group commander. Patches of snow sloughed away in several places, revealing the bald ground underneath. Showing his documents to the sentry, the captain entered the warm HQ room and brought into it the chill whiff of wind, snow and ice.
Colonel Sedov looked as different from the captain as humanly possible: tall and strapping, with a prominent roughly-hewn nose and slightly dilated nostrils (the captain's nose was delicately sculpted, like a figurine), furrowed cheeks and overlarge ears, he was not attractive but his strong cleft jaw, his black hair streaked with grey and his seemingly peasant-like manner immediately endeared him to the captain.
A month later Sedov saw his portrait, with a no-nonsense frowning face, in the country's military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (The Red Star). Next to the portrait was printed a full-page article. The article was also brought to the attention of Lieutenant General Alexander Novikov, who only a few months before had taken command of the Red Army Air Force. Colonel Sedov was summoned to Moscow, appointed wing commander and promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
It was a hot summer night. The vast heaven of stars was stretching from one end of the airfield to the other. The velvet canopy was alive with the coldly burning light of pale-blue stars. It was clear as he had never seen it before. The captain had all the required permissions to fly, in his capacity of war correspondent, on a night bombing raid.
The German attack in the Kursk-Belgorod region began on July 5, 1943, and was stopped, along the whole front, on July, 23. On August, 3, the Soviet counter-attack was launched along the line Orel-Kursk-Belgorod. Medium Ilyushin Il-4 bombers played an important role in that action. As the captain was approaching the one assigned to him, he came across a small group of military men. A few were wearing pilots' helmets and suits, but the two officers among them were dressed in a general military uniform. The captain immediately recognized one of them, the former colonel and now brigadier general.
"Comrade Sedov - Brigadier General Sedov I mean," he said excitedly, giving a military salute to the man who owed him his promotion, "I knew you were a wing commander on the Kursk front now, but I never expected – never hoped to see you just like that – to come across you by chance on an airfield!"
"Who are you?" asked the man impatiently.
"Why, war correspondent Captain Leonid Dubnov. I interviewed you at Stalingrad in November."
"Did you?" Sedov showed no sign of recognition. "And what are you doing here, may one ask?"
"I've got permission to fly on a night bombing raid – for an article for Krasnaya Zvezda." "Not here. Petrushenko," he turned to the lieutenant accompanying him, "escort him out of bounds."
"But… but… I have all the necessary papers and..."
"Lieutenant, take the captain away, and I don’t want to set my eyes on him ever again. If he starts arguing, put him under arrest. We’re too busy to entertain scribblers here."
To cut a long story short, the bomber my father was supposed to fly on was shot down by the Germans and all its crew perished.
I strongly suspect that Sedov knew just how dangerous those night flights were and kicked my father out - quickly and resolutely, avoiding arguing - to save his life. But my mother saw this as yet another feather in my father's well-deserved and honestly earned cap of humiliations.
I must stress that my memories of my mother's negative attitude to my father date to a particular period which began with a terrible calamity that befell our family in 1960. Before that I do not remember any real quarrels or falling-out. We seemed to be ordinary representatives of Soviet intelligentsia. I don't remember ever lacking food, but it's quite telling that we didn't have a washing machine and my mother had to do the laundry - for the whole six-strong family - by hand.
I'm sure that as a communist employed in the ideological work of journalism, my father could have managed to secure a private flat for his family, but this would have required an ability to stand up and fight for his rights with a kind of non-military courage he apparently lacked.
At least in Tallinn we had to share the flat with only one other family: later in Riga the communal flat had four families besides us.
I remember our bigger room in Tallinn full of guests seated at the extended table at dinner. These were my father's friends and colleagues: journalists, doctors, writers. He was very proud of his beautiful and witty wife; she, bright and gifted but lacking education, basked in the attention of all these members of the intellectual elite. Occasionally she'd pinch me painfully under the table when she thought I was misbehaving. While doing this, she went on pleasantly talking with and smiling at the guests. I must have been about eight or nine. On a couple of occasions I couldn't take this kind of hypocrisy any more and said out loud, for all to hear: "Mother, why are you pinching me under the table?"
Mother gave a gentle and indulgent smile and addressed the whole honorable gathering: "The sweet naughty boy is at his jokes again!" And, a few seconds later, to me, out of the corner of her mouth, in an ominous hiss: "I'll show you, you scoundrel!"
It must be said, though, in her defense, that these threats were never carried out. One of her saving graces was her sense of humor, and when, after the guests had left, my sisters mimicked her hypocrisy, speaking almost simultaneously out of both corners of her mouth - one corner for the guests, the other for me – she laughed heartily with the rest of the family. Everybody also laughed when they once caught me after dinner drinking dregs of wine which I'd just poured from all the wine glasses on the table into one (it had turned out quite a sizable portion!). They admonished me never to do this again – but with indulgent smiles and giggles.
I look at the old family photographs in my album: in every single one there are gaping holes where my father had been. After he'd left, my mother took the scissors and just cut him out.
Years later, when studying English Literature, I came across Robert Frost's poem "Home Burial" and was taken aback. I had thought that what had happened in my family was unique - and yet it was exactly what Frost was describing, step by step, with painful precision.
The disintegration of my family began in 1960, when my elder brother died tragically. My mother blamed my father for his death. She became much more religious, going back to her Orthodox family roots from which apparently she'd tried to escape, first by running away to a farm and then by marrying my father and moving to another, distant city.
My brother, who died when he was twenty-two - and I was eleven - had taken part in the development of virgin land - admittedly, under pressure - and had written verses in, more or less, the accepted Soviet style. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he was already on a collision course with the Soviet system. His poems, in spite of their conformism, showed a genuine talent. Perhaps his untimely death prevented the full flowering of a personality, the consequences of which could have been dire.
Vova – short for Vladimir - was too intelligent and had too well-developed a sense of individual dignity for him to be able to go along with the regime. In his school class there was a tradition whereby each pupil on his or her birthday was given a little present of some kind. My brother, since he wrote poetry, was given an album containing verses written by his class-mates. These verses, instead of the panegyrics and good wishes which might have been expected on such an occasion, were in the main devoted to criticism of his inordinate pride.
We shared our Tallinn flat with one other family. They were Ukrainians. The husband was an ordinary factory worker, and the wife, who originally came from a kolkhoz (collective farm), was employed as a cleaner in a works canteen. As representa¬tives of workers' and peasants' power, they disliked our family. For we, after all, were part of the intelligentsia. Once in our communal kitchen they had a skirmish with my brother. The husband insulted and even hit him. Exactly how he reacted, I don't know, but after that they took him to the local court for insulting behavior. They accused him, the son of an intellectual and himself a student, of treating them with contumely as representatives of the urban and rural proletariat.
In spite of all the "liberalism" of the Khrushchev period, such an accusation carried serious consequences.
The local court found my brother guilty, although it also delivered a mild reprimand to our neighbors for their lack of restraint. The court's decision was passed on to the Tallinn Polytechnic where my brother was studying. The council of the Polytechnic planned to consider his case in one of its routine sessions. Expulsion threatened my brother. However farcical this sounds the only hope for a positive outcome lay not in my father the journalist - for all his years of experience in influencing the populace through the printed word - but rather in my mother the housewife, who had scarcely read anything in her life. But she was more intelligent and a stronger character than my father, and even her use of language - vivid and passionate - left my father's journalistic clichés far behind. She was, indeed, a born orator who drew ever more fire from her burning convictions. My father had never had such convictions, much less the courage of them.
My mother I think would have succeeded in defending my brother before the council of the Polytechnic, but she had to leave the town. Her sister who lived in Tashkent sent a telegram begging her to come. This sister had married in her forties, and now she needed help from her older and more experienced sister to nurture her first baby.
My mother hesitated at first, knowing that she couldn't safely leave her son's fate to his father. She went to see the Principal of the Polytechnic. After she had talked it over with him, he agreed that there were insufficient grounds for taking more drastic measures than a reprimand or something of the kind. On the basis of this assurance she took a plane to Tashkent.
In the meantime the Principal also had to leave for somewhere and was absent from Polytechnic council session. (One may even suspect he made himself absent deliberately, to be safe rather than sorry - that is safe rather than finding himself at loggerheads with proletarian honor.) My father, judging by the result, did not give an outstanding performance. Later on, my brother told my mother with indignation that, while the council was temporarily adjourned, my father had smoked and chatted with his own son's chief accusers. The council decided to expel the student Dubnov for contempt of the working classes. When my mother came back, it was too late to do anything about it.
"Your Party" she shouted bitterly to my father. "You've spent your whole life serving it, and now your own son has been thrown out, and you couldn't help him!"
"It's his own fault", my father attempted to justify himself, "he really is much too conceited."
I think mother was partly right: because of his fear of conflict my father failed to use the trump-card of his Party membership, the ideological nature of his work as a journalist, and his war record. Moreover, he had not tried to make use of his personal contacts with the Party hierarchy. But, after all, he did not belong to the state elite, being only an ordinary Party member and an ordinary, albeit well thought-of, journalist. When it came to a clash between an ordinary communist belonging to the intelligentsia and the ostentatiously working classes, the Party might not have come down on his side. And I must also add in my father's defense that when, six years later, the university entrance commission turned me down in spite of all my 'A's in the entrance exams, he showed a measure of resilience. He secured an interview with Latvia's Deputy Minister of Education, and after this the commission reconsidered my case and reversed its decision. Perhaps by that time he had acquired more weight and leverage - and even courage; perhaps my case was different; perhaps the time was somewhat different too.
But, to return to my brother's case, those neighbors of ours remained unsatisfied with the ruling of the local court and got in an appeal even before we did. They were encouraged by the fact that, although innocent, my brother had been convicted by the court and expelled from his Polytechnic. What's more, they had already found out how to play upon their belonging to the masses. Their appetite was whetted. In the event of a successful appeal they could hope for financial compensation from us and even our eviction from the flat. In the latter case there was a chance that, if they played their cards right, capitalizing on their being injured members of the proletariat, they might even get the whole flat to themselves.
As soon as the case was referred to a higher court - the city court, in fact - my parents approached an advocate by the name of Pipko, one of the best lawyers in Tallinn. The city court, having reviewed the findings of the local court, found its decision groundless and over-ruled it. The judge even imposed a small token fine on our neighbors. Apologists for what is called socialist justice would doubtless say that right triumphed in the end - but I wouldn't. Now the fight for the reinstatement of my brother in the Polytechnic might have started. But by this time he was already in Tashkent where my mother's sister - whose baby, incidentally, had not survived - managed to square the local Polytechnic. This was achieved through bribery, so that the authorities of the Tashkent Polytechnic were not too scrupulous in asking my brother to show them all the usual papers from Tallinn, which would have revealed that he had been expelled.
My aunt's brother, my uncle, also lived in Tashkent. Together, each in their own way, they looked after my brother as much as possible, but they could not prevent the tragedy which was to occur.
One day my brother went with his lame friend Mishka for a dip in Komsomol Lake, the only swimming hole in Tashkent. Having gone into the water once and then sunbathed for a bit, they left, but after only a little while Mishka suddenly decided he would like to go into the water again. With only one leg, he probably felt embarrassed to go in all by himself. He began to talk my brother into going in with him. My brother didn't want to, as if having a premonition. He said: "We've had enough, let's go home". Mishka, however, went on urging him: "Come on, just once more". So they went back to the lake and re-entered the water. It was just as they were about to come out that my brother took one more dive. The water was too shallow, and he broke the vertebrae of his neck.
Once more my mother urgently took a plane to Tashkent, this time not for her sister's but her own child's sake. My brother, in agony, lingered on in the hospital for a few days after she arrived, and she was with him shortly before he died when he fully regained consciousness and spoke to her.
After she came back to Tallinn, the personal situation in our family got worse and worse. Mother was continually hysterical, screaming all night through "My son, my son, where are you?" She called my father "murderer", for, according to her logic, it was because of my father's failure to defend him that my brother had been expelled - and had he not been expelled, he would never have gone to Tashkent.
As far as I am concerned, I wonder it wasn't my brother's death that ultimately saved me from submitting to the Soviet system. On its own my mother's influence might have proved powerless in the face of the terrible pressure that the State brought to bear on my youth and education. But death, thus erupting into my life when I was only eleven, threw everything else into the background. I was an impressionable child, and at times I fancied that somebody I happened to see in the street was my brother. I would quicken my pace, pass him, and then look back to see his face - only to realize it was a stranger's. In the light of the haunting mystery of death all the Young Pioneer jamborees and later the whole of Marxism-Leninism seemed to be poor substitutes for existence.
Another factor which helped me to preserve myself relatively intact from the State was its persistent general racism (against practically anybody who wasn't Russian) and specifically, as it touched me, anti-Semitism.
A CHAPTER from NEVER OUT OF REACH
Growing up in Tallinn, Riga, and Moscow
(Published in North Dakota Review 78.2 & 3)
"ALL POTATOES LOOK ALIKE".
On the whole we were fortunate enough in the people we had to share with in Riga. In spite of all their shortcomings - one a thief, two of them half-insane, another an alcoholic, and so on - they were not without human warmth and decency, they appreciated my mother's intelligence and understanding of people and from time to time asked her for advice or simply confided their troubles to her. Nevertheless, it was my easy-going father they really warmed to. "We all respect Ida Solomonovna, but Leonid Abramovich - there's a really big-hearted man for you'." (My mother liked to quote these words as further evidence of my father's spinelessness, usually adding one of her stock of Jewish, Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian proverbs, such as: "It's the bent tree all the goats go at". Later I discovered that she also knew another saying which had passed into common currency from The Wisdom of the Fathers, a collection of Talmudic lore: "God loves whom men love". But it never would have occurred to her to consider applying these words to her own husband.)
In the course of our eleven-year stay in apartment eleven at eleven Rupniecibas Street some rooms in it changed tenants. The Lyolya and Valdis family moved to another part of town, while Sofya Samuilovna had to move even further - she died.
I still remember her with some uneasiness, for she really did look like an old witch - albeit twentieth-century style. She was a chain-smoker and coughed continually. My mother referred to her as "the lumpenproletariat". I did not know what that meant, but I gathered it alluded to the old woman's one time participation in the revolution and in post-revolutionary terror. My mother insisted that Sofya Samuilovna's total loneliness in her old age served her right - especially as she was Jewish and, according to my mother, it was none of her business to get mixed up in that sort of thing. "That's just the way those trollops who interrogated innocent old men and women looked and behaved," my mother would say when Sofya Samuilovna made one of her appearances in the communal kitchen. She always wore some kind of leather jacket over her rags; her lips would be painted bright scarlet, with a cigarette casually dangling from them. She lived just behind the partition wall, and at night I was sometimes awakened by her rasping graveyard cough. Then one day a gloomy hush fell on the whole flat and some men appeared with an oblong wooden box which they trundled into the old woman's room. My mother burst out crying along with one or two other neighbors: "Sofya Samuilovna has passed on".
Lyolya was the mother of Valdis, a boy some three years my junior. They were a Latvian family, and since Latvians don't use patronymics I had no way of addressing her at all. To call a woman old enough to be my mother by her first name only would have sounded over-familiar, while Auntie Lyolya would have been too childish. As for her patronymic, nobody knew what her father's first name had been, and she herself, when asked how one should address her, would say: "Just call me Lyolya". On official documents and at their place of work everybody in the Soviet Union without exception had a patronymic. At school we naturally addressed our Latvian teachers by their name and patronymic, and later on when I was working at the Latvian National Civic Design Institute I could not conceive of talking to my Latvian colleagues except with the same form. But among themselves they called each other by their first names or surnames only. Having an alien custom imposed on them must have been for many yet another unwelcome reminder that they were not masters in their own republic. Understandably, such people never conformed to the custom unless obliged to, and certainly not when away from work.
Valdis had a father too, but I hardly ever saw him and didn't even know his first name. He was some kind of state, or Party, official and seemed to me to be a highly important person. He gave this impression by his embonpoint, deliberate way of walking, taciturnity and the fact that he was often late returning from work. I realize now that he could not have been all that important. Had he been, this family would hardly have been living three to a room. But at that time the deference which Valdis clearly had for his father spilled over onto me. Valdis really did hold him in awe and the following scene remains clearly in my memory. That year I had had a chess set for my thirteenth birthday and quickly learned the moves from a book (at that time I learned everything from books). Valdis already knew how to play, and we had games together which he mostly won. His father took an evident pride in his ten-year-old son's victories. Sometimes, coming home in the evening, he would look in at the kitchen where we played, in order to appraise the situation on the chess-board. On such occasions he would usually stand there for a minute or two without uttering a word and then go back to his room. Once, when Valdis was losing, his mother told him that it was time to go to bed. He must have been very eager to get the better of me and told her that he would come in a minute. A little later she again called him, and once more he answered her in the same way. Then his father appeared. Without raising his voice, he reminded Valdis that his mother had told him to go to bed. Suddenly turning pale, Valdis jumped up and began to mutter something about how desperate he had been to finish the game. Without even arranging our next meeting, he trotted along the corridor, continually justifying himself and saying he was sorry. His father followed him unhurriedly.
My mother would often point to this kind of discipline as a good example for both me and my father. I had no such awe for my father, but instead I was afraid of his sudden outbursts of passion - his "kicking over the traces", as my mother called it. These tantrums usually happened as a result of her own nagging. One typical small scene from our Tallinn days stuck in my mind.
"Ivanov's little girl trembles at her father's every word, even though he's just an ordinary fellow, not a journalist, let alone a Party member. But in our family the children don't take any notice at all of their father," I heard my mother's voice in the corridor. "Where, who takes no notice?" my father raised his voice in assumed sternness. "That child is taking a whole hour to put one sock on," she continued as if she had not heard him. "He's been told that he's going to be late for school and that Father will be here in a moment. Why, he couldn't care less, he just goes on taking his own sweet time with his sock and singing."
"I'll show him, just let me get my hands on him!" my father "kicked over the traces" and rushed into the room. I was standing on a chair, pulling my trousers on and singing at the top of my voice the song we had just learned at school:
It's fun on skates, it's fun on a sleigh,
It's fun on the mountain to tear away -
But much more fun, with laughter and glee,
To dance around the New Year Tree!
(Translated by John Heath-Stubbs and myself)
"Here's fun on skates for you!" My father gave me a painful slap on my behind. "And here's fun on a sleigh!" - he gave me another. "And that's for tearing away on the mountain" - the last one was almost unbearably painful. I burst out crying - and soon enough, toning down my sobs in order to listen, could hear my mother berating my father for always working himself into tantrums instead of taking a firm hand with his children. According to her, by beating me up so cruelly and unexpectedly he was sending me into veritable crying hysterics ("Can't you hear the child is having a fit?" - and I would immediately turn up the volume to prove her right) and in general ruining my mental health. ("No wonder the child is growing up different from everybody else!"). I was glad to hear my father so scolded, because it served him right for punishing me, but I also wished my mother had not egged him on to begin with: she must have known only too well what his reaction to this would be.
But the older I grew and the less time my father had to spend with us, the more infrequent those outbursts became. On the whole I enjoyed a large degree of freedom in the family, and in spite of all my mother's efforts to impress me with the father-son relationship in Valdis's case, that remained totally alien for me.
Mother and I both genuinely regretted their family's moving out. But no one could fairly say that the Orlovs who took their place were less interesting.
For one thing, there was somebody of my own age group, and a girl to boot. She was called Klava and was only a year younger than I. Although she went to a different school, we still had enough common ground to discuss homework, lessons and teachers together. Sometimes we played japes - as, for instance, once when the doorbell went out of order and we were asked to write a note to be placed on the door, informing callers of the fact. We spent a whole hour drafting it, and it ran something like this: "The buzzer has konked out, having done so much service to mankind. Would-be wayfarers are kindly requested to plant their weary bums on the floor. In case of emergency please knock with your head". Once on the door, this note's life-span proved to be short. No sooner had the first caller come than we were each summoned by our respective mothers and given a dressing down. (I can only guess what her mother said to her, but mine, as usual, attributed the affair to my weakness of intellect.)
Alik, Klava's brother (actually, I think, half-brother: they were meant to have two fathers, neither of whom was around) must have been in his late twenties. He had been married but was now divorced. Alla, his ex-wife, occasionally came with their little daughter to see him. I thought Alla very pretty and couldn't understand why he should have divorced her. I heard Lyuba (Lyubov Ivanovna, that is), Alik's and Klava's mother, saying something to my mother about Alla's having been unfaithful but I was rather hazy as to what that meant. Some attempts were made to bring them together again, but although she remained fond of him, she had too many boyfriends, and it all came to nothing. He himself was hardly a model of virtue. Once, sitting in the lavatory, I overheard a conversation going on in the kitchen between him and Tonya. She was the daughter-in-law of Zinaida Alexandrovna (a very stout but energetic woman who made the floor shake whenever she walked down the corridor). Tonya was married to Zinaida Alexandrovna's son Sergey, a young officer who was away most of the year doing some kind of paper work in Egypt. Tonya was attractive in a typical Russian way: she was quite tall, opulently proportioned and often wore her hair plaited in one rich dark braid. Sergey was decidedly on the short side and seemed rather puny, especially when standing next to his wife. (Zinaida Alexandrovna said that he took after his father, her own late husband - and I couldn't help laughing trying to imagine what that couple must have looked like when they went out together, as Sergey was only about a quarter of his mother's dimensions.) Alik, on the other hand, was built like a guardsman and as handsome as one. At the time this overheard conversation took place Sergey was in Egypt but I think he was expected back any day. "Whatever are we to do, then?" asked Tonya (she sounded almost in tears). "Why, nothing,” Alik replied with a laugh. "We were just ships that pass in the night." "But it just can't be like that!" Tonya said pleadingly. "Why not? That's the way the cookie crumbles." When I emerged from the toilet into the kitchen, they stopped abruptly, for reasons I did not understand.
Lyuba, Alik's and Klava's mother, was a veritable battle-axe. On two separate occasions she nearly killed first the older and then the younger Kvele. These two Latvian women, mother and daughter, moved into the room which had been Sofya Samuilovna's. The daughter was an old maid of about forty to forty-five, called Skaidra. Her mother must have been in her sixties. Both always seemed to be suffering from various ailments. Skaidra's face was usually puffy, while her mother had swollen legs and walked with difficulty. Before they were allotted Sofya Samuilovna's room they had been living in some kind of basement which was regularly flooded when it rained. For them moving from a place like that to such a posh house - with a spiral staircase covered by a glass dome - must have been a real step up in the world. That being so, the fact that the mother with her swollen legs had to climb four flights of stairs paled into insignificance. She worked in a cigarette kiosk in Suvorov Avenue. Occasionally I would encounter her moving at a snail's pace along our street or up the stairs, stopping every few steps. Once, after having bought a glass of beer from a beer tanker parked near her kiosk, I went up to it to get some matches. She was genuinely pleased to see me, and her face became wreathed in smiles. This moment remained one of my most vivid and moving memories, since in all those quarrels and shifting alliances that went on at home our families happened at the time to be on different sides and I had more than once been intentionally rude to her, just to keep our end up.
I think it was largely because of Lyuba that we were at odds with the Kveles at all - and indeed, later on, when she moved out, we became quite friendly with them. We could hardly refuse Lyuba our support, for our family and hers were on very good terms. In every apartment dispute she took our side, and as all were afraid of her tempestuous disposition she was a useful ally. The fact that she had a young and muscular son made her position even more formidable: although Alik usually did not get involved in these feuds, he was still a force to be reckoned with. On the few occasions when he did involve himself it was for some major cause, and then his entry on stage would be really impressive.
Maria Tikhonovna also had a son - Victor - who was likewise young and broad-shouldered but he turned out to be no match for Alik. Moreover, he was often away at sea, and anyhow lived elsewhere and only visited his mother occasionally.
Maria Tikhonovna must have been getting on for seventy. She was a quiet old woman, but she had a mind of her own. My mother said that when it came to intelligence she could knock spots off everybody in the place. Victor must have inherited his mother's laconic manner: except for "hello", I hardly ever heard him utter a word, either to me or to the others. Indeed, I had the impression that even to his own mother he said nothing but "Hello mother" and "Goodbye mother". Like Alik, he was quite handsome, and in addition to his wife he had a mistress. Sometimes he would come to visit Maria Tikhonovna not on his own but with one or other of them. Each of them tried to get into Maria Tikhonovna's good books by bringing her various gifts. "Ida Solomonovna," the old woman would say, "look what an expensive Orenburg kerchief my daughter-in-law has given me - how much could a thing like that cost? And these fur boots - Victor's girlfriend bought them for me. Which do you think are nicer?" - "Why, both presents are equally nice," my mother would answer diplomatically.
Maria Tikhonovna was in the habit of stealing things now and again. Once, when I was in our smaller room, deeply immersed in a book, she tiptoed in, evidently believing there was no one there. Imagine her surprise when she saw me! Muttering something like "I keep on calling: 'Ida Solomonovna, Ida Solomonovna,' - but I get no answer", she beat a hasty retreat. On another occasion, when she had invited my mother and myself to admire the new mirror which had been bought for her by Victor's mistress, we noticed something familiar on her table. It was a table-runner which we had brought with us all the way from Tallinn and which had then disappeared. "It's a lovely mirror", my mother said, "and I like this table-runner too. I wonder where such a nice one could be got?" - "Oh I really don't know," answered Maria Tikhonovna without batting an eyelid, "it was Victor who brought it for me from abroad, years ago." Mother did not inquire further exactly in what foreign parts one might find a table-runner with an Estonian national design. Instead she told me off for neglecting to lock the door when going from one of our rooms to the other or to the telephone. But it wasn't just me - all of us, including herself, frequently forgot to do this. It was hardly practicable to lock the door - and take the key with you - every time you had to pop into the other room to fetch something (I also felt slightly embarrassed doing this in front of our co-tenants, as if they could not be trusted). And when the phone was ringing and you had to rush to answer it before it stopped then there was simply no time. But if that same phonecall turned out to be for oneself then the room could remain unwatched for some considerable time. Although we hardly had anything worth stealing, some articles - pieces of cutlery, small plates, doilies and little vases - would regularly vanish. To be fair, I have to say that some of these might have been stolen not by Maria Tikhonovna but by Zinaida Alexandrovna, Tonya's mother-in-law. Whereas Maria Tikhonovna I called the professional thief, Zinaida Alexandrovna was in my eyes no more than an amateur. It is true that she likewise was not above filching other people's property. She too strolled into our room once, and according to my mother on more than one occasion she helped herself to our meat from the pot cooking on the stove. But she lacked Maria Tikhonovna's persistence and finesse - not to mention her audacity. Indeed, would she ever have had Maria Tikhonovna's nerve in sequestrating potatoes from the communal larder?
These potatoes - five kilos - had been bought by Lyuba at the local shop in Janki Kupala Street, in the morning, and by early afternoon half of them had vanished. But Maria Tikhonovna's had reckoned without Lyuba's fighting spirit. For, having a pretty good idea who the thief was, Lyuba quickly organized a posse to go through all the rooms in search of the missing potatoes. Sure enough, they were found under Maria Tikhonovna's bed, and a hilarious exchange took place between Maria Tikhonovna and Lyuba.
"Here they are!" shouted Lyuba triumphantly. "These are my potatoes!" - "Nothing of the sort," answered Maria Tikhonovna in a sweetly reasonable voice, "I've just bought them at the greengrocer's by the post office". - "You're a liar! This is just the amount that went missing! And they're the same color!" She rushed back to her room and returned with a specimen potato - so that everybody could observe the similarity. "All potatoes look alike," answered Maria Tikhonovna, not at all put out. "And why do you keep potatoes under your bed then?" - "Why, it just happens to be a habit of mine."
"Okay, just you wait," said Lyuba. "When Alik comes home he will sort it out". Alik got back from work a couple of hours later. The whole apartment could hear Lyuba briefing him on the situation; the word "potatoes" continually reverberated in their room. "I'll kill her if she doesn't give them back," said Alik, coming out of the room and heading for Maria Tikhonovna's door. Lyuba ran after him, begging him at the top of her voice to try not to use force - unless he really had to.
But it was not for nothing that my mother had such a high opinion of Maria Tikhonovna's resourcefulness - it turned out that the old woman had already found time to summon her son Victor. No sooner had Alik started banging on her door shouting, "What's all this business about the potatoes?" than the flat bell rang twice. (Each family had its own number of rings, and each new set of tenants inherited the code of its predecessors. For us one had to ring no fewer than five times.) "That'll be Victor!" cried Maria Tikhonovna gleefully as she went to open the door. "What's this potato business?" asked Victor of those gathered in the corridor. "Why can't you leave my mother alone?" - "We'll have to find out whose mother it is that can't be left alone," Alik rejoined and went on to suggest: "Let's take a little walk together - we'll leave the women out of it."
They returned after half an hour, and that marked the end of the matter. Later Lyuba told my mother in confidence that she had got her potatoes back. This had to be done discreetly because part of the agreement between Alik and Victor had been that the affair should be settled in a quiet way, so that Maria Tikhonovna should not lose face. Victor must surely have known about his mother's little ways, and I think that it was not just Alik's superior physique that made him concede the point.
Alik did not intervene in Lyuba's skirmishes with the Kveles, but this did not stop her from holding the possibility of his intervention over them. They, for their part, threatened to complain to the police that they were continually intimidated by the prospect of physical violence. I could never understand what the whole thing was all about. I now think that it was mainly a matter of the disparity of their temperaments - Russian and Latvian. This national difference was aggravated by Lyuba's being naturally headstrong while the Kveles were not a little dotty. The older of the two would occasionally, in the middle of an argument with another tenant, break out into a weird loud laugh. Sometimes she would do this for apparently no reason at all, except that she found herself alone in the kitchen with someone from the enemy camp. This laugh was meant to express her total contempt for them. Skaidra the daughter's behavior was even more interesting. Once, when I was about seventeen, at the height of our feud she failed to call me to the phone but slammed the receiver down before my very eyes (nobody ever phoned the Kveles, so she could afford this tactic without fear of retaliation). Having done this, she retreated to her room which was just behind the telephone. After a few seconds the phone started to ring again, and I lifted the receiver. It was a friend of mine who said that he had just rung and asked for me but somebody had cut him off. The Kveles' door opened slightly - Skaidra clearly wanted to hear what was being said. "I know very well who it was," I replied in a deliberately raised voice, "and I'll make sure, right now, they'll never do it again."
So saying, with a heavy tread I approached the Kveles' door - which immediately shut - and banged on it loud enough to waken the dead. Skaidra and I were the only people in the flat at the time. "I'll send for the police!" she shouted in response to my banging. "Why the hell didn't you call me to the phone?" - "And I won't call you next time either!" - "So that's the way it is? Just you wait!" - and I opened the door of her room. All I wanted was just to scare her a bit, but she began to squeal so loudly that I was terrified myself and left her to it.
After that she would regularly appear clad in nothing but a very short nightie at her doorway whenever I - or, for that matter, anybody else from our camp - happened to pass. No one knew exactly why she did this, but we conjectured that it was simply to annoy. If so, surely this was not very effective, since the light bulb in the corridor was so dim that all one could make out was a vague pink and white blur.
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" my mother would say to her. "Fancy doing that kind of thing - at your age too! Just what are you trying to get out of it - to tempt someone with your flabby body?" - "Why, your own son enjoys looking at met!" Skaidra would answer. "My son?" my mother laughed. "My son can look at young girls with young bodies - he doesn't have to gawk at someone like you." (I considered this sadly ironic, for already my mother's jealous attitude to my most innocent and tentative relationships with girls was quite intolerable.) Then, after a few days of Skaidra's exhibitionism, Lyuba decided that the joke was over and complained to Alik. "Where, where did you say she stands naked?" he thundered coming out into the corridor. (There was dead silence in Skaidra's room.) "Just let her try it on again!" She never did.
Sometimes the seeds of a political drama could be discerned in this farce. "Why don't you go back to Moscow where you came from and leave our Latvia to us Latvians?" old Kvele would occasionally mutter in the kitchen - to which Lyuba invariably replied: "When was Latvia ever yours? It's always been Russian!"
One evening the whole flat was aroused by wild shrieks coming from the kitchen. We all ran there - and saw old Kvele lying in the middle of the floor with her feet waving in the air. Skaidra who was in the bathroom immediately began joining in her mother's screams. Together they made such a hullabaloo that even people from adjoining flats came rushing in to see what was the matter. Lyuba, who continued to occupy herself with her cooking, as if nothing had happened, eventually told us what it was all about.
"I was making some soup, and never touched her, when all at once she began to say under her breath: 'Go back to Moscow, what are you lot doing here, go home!' Well, finally I got fed up. So I shoved her nose in her own frying-pan. I did it quite gently, just to teach her a lesson - but straightaway she started screaming blue murder. The bloody shammer!"
For a long time after this the Kveles kept threatening to take Lyuba to court but never did so. They must have realized that Lyuba had a trump-card in her hand - namely, old Kvele's anti-Russian outbursts.
They likewise failed to take legal action on another occasion when she might really have killed the younger Kvele. But that was Skaidra's own fault. The thing was that she sometimes listened at Lyuba's keyhole. Precisely why she did it is still a bit of mystery to me. Nothing anti-Soviet could possibly have been said in that family - and anyhow I doubt whether Skaidra would have gone as far as to inform on them. My guess is that she listened in order to try and find out what moves her chief enemy was planning. She had nothing to do, and in her empty life any triviality could grow out of all proportion and lead to paranoia. "I hear every word you're saying in there," she would sometimes remark in passing to Lyuba - and on one occasion she even spelled it out: "We know very well in what connection you mentioned our names yesterday." At first Lyuba paid no attention to these insinuations, putting them down to Skaidra's muddled mind. But once, coming out into the corridor, she saw her jump back and then run to her own room. "It looks as if the bitch really is listening at the keyhole!" she said with surprise. "Never mind, I'll teach her."
A few days later Lyuba managed to catch her enemy in the act - she must have heard Skaidra, or perhaps saw her standing there through the keyhole. She suddenly flung open the door. The door-handle was quite a massive one, and Skaidra was really very lucky not to get her skull cracked. As for Lyuba, nobody could blame her: hadn't she got the right to come out of her own room whenever she felt like it? And how was she to know who might be skulking there?
Apart from matters of life and death, the struggle between the warring factions was also conducted in a multitude of minor ways. Thus, once Lyuba refused to pay her share of the electricity bill after the Kveles had bought two new bulbs to replace the burnt-out ones in the communal corridors. These new bulbs were a hundred watts, whereas the old ones had been only sixty watts. I delighted at this brightening up of the dark gloomy corridors along which all of us were obliged to run backwards and forwards over and over again every day. And surely the difference in the bill, as against the sixty-watt bulbs, after it had been divided between five families, would have been negligible. But for Lyuba the thing was a matter of principle. "They'll bedizen themselves with light bulbs, and I shall have to pay!" she fulminated. "Isn't it enough that the younger hag sits at home all day, when everybody else is out working, and burns up electricity in the loo! And the older hag keeps forgetting to turn it off after her! And we all have to pay for those madams!"
I believe that if it had been put to the vote, the majority of the tenants would have been in favor of the hundred-watt bulbs. But as Lyuba refused to pay for the extra power, to work out her share of the bill according to the old system would have been well nigh impossible. So the flat relapsed into its former state of dimness.
The Kveles, for their part, tried to annoy all of us in matters pertaining to the bathroom. This needs explaining in some detail.
One of the happiest events of my teenage years was the inauguration of a new water tower in Riga. This now meant that the water was on tap about the same number of hours per day as it was off. (On average, that is: it did not mean at all that it would be on, say, for two hours at a time, and then off for two hours. Such a timetable we could only dream of. In practice the water behaved with total unpredictability, appearing whenever it felt like it and treacherously vanishing at crucial moments.) For me personally the improvement in the water supply meant that I was much less often obliged to carry buckets of water up the back stairs from a lower floor. Everybody in our flat still found it advisable to lay in stocks of water (drawing them when the pressure was highest), but now there was less need for this, and it was only in very rare emergencies that one had to make calls on neighbors on the lower floors. (We were lucky, because our floor was the highest which the building of the new water tower affected for the better. For those who lived above us on the fifth floor nothing changed.) Another reason I welcomed this advance in Soviet technology was that the atmosphere in our flat became rather less tense; my mother almost completely stopped shouting out, "The water's running! Quickly, fetch a bucket!" and then scolding me for being too slow. But in the matter of taking a bath these bonuses altered nothing. It was still impossible to have one at normal times, because the water could not be relied on. It might be off, or it might stop just when you most needed it.
I am talking, of course, about cold water - there was no running hot water in the flat at all. If you wanted to have a bath, the water had to be heated up beforehand on the stove in a number of saucepans, kettles and cans. And if after all this trouble there turned out not to be enough cold water to add to it for a decent bath with a rinse afterwards, then the whole operation would have been a waste of time. So it made more sense to have a bath as late at night as possible, when the water would be available.
Skaidra must have expended an enormous amount of time and energy on spying out the enemy camp's intentions in this matter. But it must have been worth her while - and indeed, on one or two occasions she succeeded in frustrating us. This was by her occupying the bathroom - having made a dash there from the kitchen with a kettleful of hot water - just before we were about to use it. This kettleful would have only sufficed to wash her hair, for which purpose she would hardly have had to wait till two in the morning. What's more, she remained in the bathroom for over an hour with this single kettleful - obviously just to keep us waiting as long as she could.
When my mother told Lyuba about this, the latter was triumphant. Skaidra would never have had the nerve to play such a trick on her, and she had repeatedly reproached my mother for taking too soft a line with the Kveles. But it was not only by her being in a position to say "I told you so!" that Lyuba was elated. She saw the incident as clear confirmation of her views on Skaidra's fitness for work. Everybody in the flat knew that Skaidra had a heart condition but opinion was divided between those who thought that she was too ill to work and those who put it down to sheer laziness. "So when it comes to helping out her elderly mother by sitting half a day in the kiosk she's too ill, but as for being on her feet all night in order to play a dirty trick on people - all of a sudden she's spry enough!"
Human nature being what it is, one should not so much wonder at the fact that such overcrowded conditions brought out the worst in people as appreciate that with all this they still retained some measure of common decency. Thus, it now seems to me that Lyuba had a degree of compassion for the older Kvele. How to explain otherwise her condemnation of Skaidra's failure to contribute more than just a couple of hours a week in helping her mother out in the kiosk? My own mother, at the height of all this intolerable squabbling, would sometimes say that the Kveles were more to be pitied than blamed. "The things they get up to are both despicable and silly," she remarked, "but what can one say? They're sick, the two of them, the old woman can hardly drag herself along. To have lived for years where they were before, in that damp cellar, would be enough to drive anyone mad."
The Kveles themselves, after we became reconciled with them, showed many likeable traits. The old woman every now and again would treat me to sweets from her kiosk, while Skaidra went out of her way to be particularly polite and helpful on the phone when the call was for us. We, for our part, when going out shopping, often asked if we could get anything for them.
My mother was basically on good terms with all the tenants, and both Lyuba and her predecessor Lyolya, after they had moved out, would sometimes come to visit her. Neither of them, on these occasions, showed any desire to see any of the others.
The Petrovs - husband and wife - moved in to take the place of the Orlovs. It was difficult to judge their ages: the wife always seemed worn out by work and her husband's excessive drinking, and as for him, I hardly ever saw him standing upright and so didn't really get a good look at his face. He couldn't have been more than about fifty, but everybody called him "old Petrov". He worked in Riga's famous radio and gramophone factory VEF - the same one where Alik Orlov had worked and where I was to spend one of the ghastliest periods of my life (a term of industrial or agricultural labor was obligatory in Soviet schools). Old Petrov drank all the time, but especially at the end of the week. Then one could hear his wife's shrieks coming from their room. Occasionally I distinguished something about the miserable life she led and threats to do away with herself. She would emerge in tears, trying to sneak along the corridors as quickly as possible to avoid being observed. On pay-days and for a couple of days afterwards old Petrov moved exclusively on all fours, and instead of uttering articulate speech he mooed or giggled. His wife kept running after him in the corridors in order to retrieve him. Once she managed to catch him in the nick of time as he was muttering "sonny" and offering me vodka. "Haven't you got enough pals to drink with? Leave the boy out of it!" she scolded, dragging him back by the scruff of the neck (they had a long way to go, because while she had been complaining to my mother about her lot he had succeeded in crawling almost as far as the kitchen). "He'll drink with you, to be sure, that'll be the day! He'd rather read a good book," she added, obviously in an attempt to please me and thus make up for what she saw as her husband's assault on my refined sensibility. Little did she know that I had already started my training as a drinker - part of the initiation of almost every Soviet youth - and that "a good book" was much less of an attraction than going to a bar with my friends. Only a month or so later I came home totally drunk for the first time and collapsed in the doorway of our room. "Go to old Petrov - that is, if you can get that far - and kiss him on both cheeks," said my mother, shaking her head. "You're two of a kind now."