excerpted from Back to Moscow
I was meeting Nadezhda Nikolaevna four times a week in a small classroom at the humanities faculty. If I had been out the night before, which was often the case, I would spend our three academic hours—which each lasted forty minutes—struggling to keep my eyes open while she read bits from old Soviet books and made me repeat words such as perpadavaltelnotsa, prepadavaltelnetsa, prepodavatelnitsa, which I couldn’t quite pronounce but just meant teacher, for chrissake.
But, against my own expectations, the combination of lessons at university and chatting up dyevs in nightclubs seemed to be working—I was picking up the language. During our lessons, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, who had been teaching Russian to foreigners for decades, spoke simple Russian and mimed vividly, so, after a few weeks, I was able to figure out, if not exactly what she was saying, at least the general idea she was trying to convey.
Sometimes I got it badly wrong though. One day Nadezhda Nikolaevna walked into the classroom looking particularly morose and told me she was devastated because her cherepakha had just passed away. I’d been to the Duck the night before, so cherepakha day must have been a Wednesday. The remains of vodka in my blood had put me in a dark mood, and Nadezhda Nikolaevna’s tragic loss made a strong impression on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, regretting my inability to express proper condolences in Russian.
I didn’t know the word cherepakha. In my mind, I went through all family-related vocabulary I had learned so far, which at the time was limited: brat, brother; sestra, sister; syn, son; dochka, daughter. As far as I could tell, cherepakha had not entered my lexicon.
“Life goes on,” Nadezhda Nikolaevna said. “Let’s get to work.”
At that moment, confused by my unexpected encounter with death at such an early hour of the day, I couldn’t help but admire what I identified as yet another example of Russian resilience. I found myself thinking of Ilyusha’s death in The Brothers Karamazov, about The Death of Ivan Illich, about the natural and yet intimate relationship Russians have with mortality.
“Cherepakha?” Nadezhda Nikolaevna asked.
“I don’t think I know the word.”
“Yes, Martin, you know, something that something slow and something hard.”
“I’m sorry, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, I don’t understand.” Then, in a gesture I will never forget, Nadezhda Nikolaevna raised her elbows and moved her arms in a slow crawling motion. She tilted her head, inflated her wrinkled cheeks, and stuck her tongue out. It made a gruesome sight.
“Cherepakha, cherepakha!” she repeated.
She took my notebook, started to draw. First, she made a big circle. Then, with the precision of an architect, she drew two short perpendicular lines on each side, followed by a smaller pear-shaped figure on top, a head, I realized, and I gradually understood what she was trying to draw.
That’s when I learned that cherepakha means turtle.
From then on, every time I encountered the word cherepakha, what came to my mind first was the image of Nadezhda Nikolaevna sticking her tongue out, and not the reptile she had mimicked for my understanding.
One day, at the end of our language class, Nadezhda Nikolaevna proposed that we go on an excursion into town later in the week. She thought that, as a prospective Russian literature expert, I’d be interested to see Gorky’s house, a beautiful art nouveau building in central Moscow, which had been turned into a museum. I wasn’t wild about the idea of having to get up earlier to spend the morning in a museum, but Nadezhda Nikolaevna seemed really keen, so we made plans to take our last lesson of the week to the city center.
On Friday morning, I stood in the middle of the Arbatskaya station platform, among the rush of Muscovites, waiting for Nadezhda Nikolaevna. It was the day after I’d first met Lena in Propaganda, and I’d had barely two hours’ sleep. My head was aching and clouded, my throat dry. Yet, as I tried to identify Nadezhda Nikolaevna in the moving mass of people, I felt a cheerful tickle in my chest, an unusual feeling of excitement, provoked not so much by the prospect of visiting Gorky’s house as of meeting Lena later in the day.
Nadezhda Nikolaevna emerged from the crowd wearing a babushka headscarf and carrying a plastic bag. Out in the street, we walked slowly along the frozen pavement of the Boulevard. The temperatures had dropped in the last few days, and we were both tucked into our winter coats. Nadezhda Nikolaevna’s gait was stooped and—in my head—turtle-like. For a brief moment, it crossed my mind to offer her my arm, but then I thought the gesture condescending, a bit ridiculous, and I continued walking at arm’s length.
We turned left at Malaya Nikitskaya and soon reached Gorky’s house. The babushkas taking care of the museum were almost as old as Nadezhda Nikolaevna. After paying for the tickets, we were ordered to wear giant felt slippers over our shoes so as not to damage the original parquet floors. Slippers strapped on, we glided carefully over th
e polished floors of the museum. I was particularly impressed by the large library, which, according to a laminated leaflet in faulty English, contained Gorky’s own books, most of which were annot