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 annotated in the margins by the great writer himself.
Despite my Propaganda hangover, I tried my best to follow Nadezhda Nikolaevna’s enthusiastic explanations about the beautiful house and Gorky’s life. The mansion, she was saying, had been commissioned in the early 1900s by a wealthy banker called Ryabushinsky. After 1917, the building had been expropriated by the Bolsheviks and used as headquarters for several Soviet institutions. When, in the early 1930s, Gorky returned from Italy, he was bestowed with plenty of honors, including, Nadezhda Nikolaevna said, renaming both Tverskaya Street and the city of Nizhny Novgorod after him. Stalin awarded him the Ryabushinsky mansion, with the intention that it would become an intellectual hub for Soviet writers.
As I listened to her talk, I pictured Gorky and his illustrious visitors—which, I was told, included Stalin himself—discussing literature and socialism beneath the stained-glass windows and carved wooden frames. Every now and then, my mind would temporarily drift from Gorky to Propaganda, as I was bombarded by flashes of the previous night. The big blue eyes. The goodbye kiss.
Nadezhda Nikolaevna seemed proud of the museum. I made sure that I looked impressed by everything she was telling me, even if I missed some of her explanations. When we were done with the first floor, we tackled the spectacular staircase, which had a wavy banister that ended in a bronze jellyfish-like lamp. I let her go first, and discreetly positioned myself behind, worried that, with the cumbersome slippers, she might trip and roll down this fine but slippery example of Russian art nouveau.
Half an hour later, as we walked back towards Arbatskaya, Nadezhda Nikolaevna suggested that we find a café and sit for some tea. “The visit only took us one hour,” she said, “we still have time left.”
I was hoping to stay around the center, see if Stepanov was at home so that I could crash on his couch for a couple of hours before meeting Lena.
“It was a very interesting visit,” I said. “I think we can consider it a full lesson. Let’s stop here and meet next week.”
“Martin, I would prefer if we finish our lesson time. I’m paid for a three-hour lesson, and it’s my job to give it to you.”
She looked determined. Not wanting to offend her sense of duty or make her feel I didn’t value her teaching, I agreed to continue our lesson.
We walked into the Old Arbat. A few stands stood in the middle of the pedestrian street, selling wares for tourists: Soviet flags, matryoshka dolls, lacquered boxes, painted eggs. We walked into the first café we saw. It was warm and cozy inside. The wood-paneled decor imitated a traditional Russian country house and included, near the entrance, a real stuffed cow. We sat at a small table by the window, facing each other, and ordered a pot of black tea.
I was afraid we wouldn’t have much to talk about, but Nadezhda Nikolaevna continued speaking about Gorky. To my surprise, in the intimacy of the café, she was giving me an entirely different spin on Gorky’s story. As I understood it, Nadezhda Nikolaevna was now telling me that Gorky was a sell-out. While he’d written very interesting stuff in his early years, after 1917, he’d become a puppet of the Soviet regime, especially following his return from Italy. The house we’d just visited, I was being told, was unworthy of a writer who claimed to represent the proletariat. In exchange for supporting Stalin’s increasingly totalitarian regime, Gorky had been granted plenty of favors, including a position as president of the Writers’ Union.
“And for what?” Nadezhda Nikolaevna said. “He didn’t write a single good line after the revolution.”
I wondered why Nadezhda Nikolaevna hadn’t told me this version of Gorky’s story while we were inside the museum. Perhaps, I thought, she was afraid that the dezhurnayas following us across the rooms—to ensure that we didn’t break or steal anything, I’d assumed—would intervene if she deviated from the official version of Gorky’s story as presented by the museum.
When the tea arrived, Nadezhda Nikolaevna took a small foil-wrapped parcel from her plastic bag and placed it at the center of the table. “A little surprise,” she said, smiling. She unwrapped the parcel, uncovering a napkin with a few rolled-up blinis.
“I made them myself for our little excursion,” she said proudly, as she extended the napkin with the blinis next to the teapot. “I hope you like blinis with tvorog.”
Noticing my hesitation, Nadezhda Nikolaevna explained that it was fine to bring your own food to cafés in Moscow. “The food in these places is expensive and not very good,” she said.
I could see from the menu that it was possible to order an entire meal for two for the price of a cocktail in Propaganda.
I took one of the blinis and had a bite. Buttery, sweet, delicious.
“They are lovely,” I said. Over tea and blinis, Nadezhda Nikolaevna continued with Gorky’s story, telling me how, in the end, the great Soviet writer had fallen out of favor with Stalin and had probably been killed by the secret services.
“They painted the walls of his bedroom with poisonous paint,” she said. “So Gorky fell ill and died.”
“Interesno,” I said, nodding. I wondered why Stalin’s people, who had kidnapped, tortured, and killed with pleasure, would resort to such creative methods to murder an aging and not particularly dangerous writer. But I was getting accustomed to the myths and parables Russians used to explain their recent history. When the official version of historical events seemed artificial, the emergence of alternative narratives was only natural. These stories, some of which might have held a grain of truth, spread by word of mouth through Moscow’s many shared kitchens.
The hot tea was bringing me back to life. I was really enjoying our excursion. The Gorky Museum, the stories, the chilly air outside. I was particularly touched by the homemade blinis.
As Nadezhda Nikolaevna was finishing the story of Gorky’s death, the young waiter who had brought the teapot came over and planted himself next to our table.
“Woman,” he said, addressing Nadezhda Nikolaevna.
I had learned that, ever since the perestroika, Russians had had a problem address
ing each other. The word tovarisch—comrade—previously used to address any fellow Soviet citizen, had become politically obsolete. But pre-revolutionary language was not really an option: during the seven decades of communism, the old words for sir and madam were deemed too bourgeois and had fallen into disuse. Now, when addressing a stranger, Russians were left with little choice but to say man, woman, boy, girl, or—to people around my age—young person.
Nadezhda Nikolaevna, wrapped up in telling Gorky’s story, didn’t seem to notice the waiter.
“Woman,” the waiter repeated, now louder, without the slightest trace of a smile. “You can’t bring outside food into this café.”
“Oh,” Nadezhda Nikolaevna said, looking up and smiling, “but these are blinis that I made at home.”
“I don’t care what they are,” he said. “You need to order food from our menu.”
Nadezhda Nikolaevna blushed, embarrassed at having been talked down to—or perhaps, I thought, at having provided me with the wrong information about Moscow’s customs. The cheerfulness she had shown all morning dissolved at once. She looked down, started to wrap the rest of the blinis.
“Woman,” the waiter said, not moving an inch from the table, “if you can’t afford the food in here, just stay home.”
“Go fuck yourself!” I found myself saying, in plain English, as I jumped up to face him, knocking over my chair.
The waiter, confused, stepped back and disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, Nadezhda Nikolaevna and I were walking in silence along the Old Arbat. “I’m sorry I snapped in the café,” I said. “It wasn’t my intention to make a scene.”
“Moscow is changing,” she murmured, gaze fixed on the pavement, a sad tone in her voice.
She seemed even older, more fragile—walking now with difficulty. As we moved along the pedestrian street, I offered Nadezhda Nikolaevna my arm. We made our way towards Smolenskaya, flanked by families and tourists. With one hand she clutched my elbow, with the other she carried the plastic bag with the unfinished blinis. ***
MIND THE CLOSING DOORS. Next stop: Chistye Prudy.
I was heading north on the red line, rocked from side to side, observing the other passengers, not thinking of anything in particular.
As the metro clanked through endless tunnels, I began to reflect upon the sheer size of the city, how nobody could tell me how many people lived in it. More than in Paris or London or New York, I was often told.
Every day, millions of unsmiling Muscovites navigated their way through the underground arteries of the city. Silent strangers in dark clothes, crammed into wagons yet trying to avoid human contact, staring at their newspapers, at their books, into the air. Not a smile. Every passenger in Moscow’s metro seemed deeply unhappy.
Mind the closing doors. Next stop: Krasnye Vorota.
You could hop on any metro line and get off at a random station, and you would always resurface among wide streets and identical buildings. Each suburb had a different name, often related to communist lore, but they all looked pretty much the same. Stations had their own makeshift markets, which sold cheap clothes and newspapers and chocolates and flowers and gloves and hats and scarves and pirated CDs and, later on, mobile phones.
Mind the closing doors. Next stop: Komsomolskaya.
When we first met, some three weeks after my arrival, Ira was about to start working part-time as a secretary at an American firm. Wanting to improve her English but unable to afford language classes, she’d pinned a handwritten ad on the announcement board of my faculty. You want to practice Russian?
On Tuesdays we spoke in English and on Thursdays we spoke in Russian. That was our arrangement. We would meet in the first-floor cafeteria at MGU, where they only served a local variety of instant coffee and the price of a cup changed according to the amount of sugar you wanted in it.
Ira had a boyfriend, a piece of information she’d forced into the conversation while we were sipping our first cup of coffee, and this was good, I thought, as I could do with a real Russian friend. Besides, I wasn’t attracted to her. Ira was plumpish, and her eyes, an undefined watery color, were always framed by dark circles. Her hair was thin, short and messy. By Moscow standards, Ira was what Colin referred to as below average.
Mind the closing doors. Next stop: Krasnoselskaya.
So we became friends, Ira and I, and she introduced me to another side of Moscow—not the clubbing scene or expat hang-outs, which she didn’t really know, but the cultural side of the city. She showed me the places where the young intelligentsia gathered, and she used those words, young intelligentsia, by which she meant, I realized, other cash-starved students. Ira introduced me to some of her girlfriends. They were very nice but, for some reason which defied the rules of probability, not one of them was above average.
Ira and her friends taught me modern slang and expressions I would not learn at language class with Nadezhda Nikolaevna, who was a hundred years old and probably didn’t know them. From Ira, I also learned Russian swear words, which proved useful with time, when I began to take on rude waitresses and shop assistants.
It was Ira who first showed me Café OGI, the underground establishment, famous in Moscow, that later sprouted two separate cafés with similar looks and names—all selling cheap books, cheap food, and cheap drinks. But Ira took me to the original one, on Chistye Prudy, and it was dark and smoky, out of a Dostoyevsky novel, and, as I sipped on a warm beer, I glanced around at the colorful clientele, trying to identify the philosophers, the schemers, and the impoverished students with murderous intentions.
Mind the closing doors. Next stop: Sokolniki.
I jumped off the metro, took the escalator up to
the street. It was a cold December day. I wandered in the snow for ten minutes, holding a hand-drawn map in my gloved hands, trying to recognize, among the indistinguishable blocks and entrances, which one corresponded to the one where Ira had drawn a cross. It was dark, and by the time I found the podyezd, as they called the entranceway, it was quarter past eight. I tapped in the entry code, as written on Ira’s instructions, and took the lift to the third floor.
“Happy birthday,” I said when Ira opened the door. “This is for you.”
I handed her a bottle of expensive French wine I’d bought in Eliseevsky.
“What else?” Ira asked.
“Was I supposed to bring anything else?”
“Of course not,” she said, laughing. “This is great. What I mean is, what else are you going to tell me? Or is happy birthday all you wish me?”
I took my shoes off, placed them at the end of a line of shoes ranged neatly along the wall. “What’s wrong with happy birthday?”
“Martin, in Russia you can’t only wish someone happy birthday.”
I handed my coat to Ira. “You can’t?”
“Happy birthday is just a formula,” Ira said, hanging my coat on a rack bulging with winter clothes. “You need to tell me what you wish for me in the next year, like happiness, love, or success, you know.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know. I do wish you all that as well.”
A pungent smell of cabbage wafted in from the kitchen.
“This is Sergey’s mother,” Ira said, pointing at the older lady who had just appeared. “Aleksandra Olegovna.”
Aleksandra Olegovna had clearly made an effort to look festive. Her hair was blown out, in the fashion of 1980s pop singers, and she was wearing a black dress and a thick necklace with pearly stones. She was in her late forties or fifties; I could never tell with older Russian women.
“Come in, come in,” Aleksandra Olegovna said. “Apologies for the small apartment.”
It was customary among Muscovites to apologize for the size of their apartments. Colin said it was yet another manifestation of their inferiority complex vis-à-vis foreigners that, in the minds of untraveled Russians, all Westerners live in big houses. The thought made me laugh as, in Amsterdam, I’d been living in the smallest of flats, with a cupboard shower at the back of the kitchen and