The Grieving Angel

A twinging ache of grief rose up in everyone
and Helen of Argos wept, the daughter of Zeus,
Telemakhos and Menelaos wept,
and tears came to the eyes of Nestor's son -
remembering, for his part, Antilokhos,
whom the son of shining Dawn had killed in battle.
...But now it entered Helen's mind
to drop into the wine that they were drinking
an anodyne, mild magic of forgetfulness.
Whoever drank this mixture in the wine bowl
would be incapable of tears that day -
though he should lose mother and father both,
or see, with his own eyes, a son or brother
mauled by weapons of bronze at his own gate.
The opiate of Zeus' daughter bore
This canny power.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book IV

In Saskatchewan, the unusually cold winter of two years ago shook the resolve of even its most stoic inhabitants, the dreary season ending only in the middle of May. In one week the city of Saskatoon was transformed; the grass turned green, perennial and annual flowers made an appearance at every shopping outlet, and a great number of birds speedily crisscrossed that stretched out, unclouded, and much celebrated prairie sky. The tumult of the spring brought with it at least one disturbing note: all over the city birds flew directly at the house windows, confused by the reflected grandeur of the aforementioned blue magnificence. "There is a dead bird on your path, Elena," my friends would announce on entering my house. "It is not necessarily dead; it could be just stunned," I reply somewhat shocked by this curious exchange. I remember all this so vividly because while enacting the weekly ritual of burying the birds and transplanting flowers, I was also deciding whether or not to go to Russia for a short visit (third since1993). To be truthful, I did not want to go. "The night after the battle belongs to the thieves and marauders," my father would say on the phone explaining why the country was not going forward. So I listened carefully and repeated to myself: the Soviet Union fell, the night after the victory belongs to the mafia and the racketeers, and this may last for the next quarter of a century. People like my father remained partial exiles, their views met with hidden hostility. My friends and the people of my generation brought up in Post-Stalinist Russia with a state-sanctioned sense of altruism, wonder, and hope were simply not needed. In other words, I did not want to go see how we all failed or, to be precise, to feel again how little one can do when confronted with so much need.
It was Peter MacKinnon, then the Dean of Law, however, who encouraged me to go, and once more, this time with Kevin (on his first trip to Russia), I find myself in the grey-brown Sheremetievo airport where my family said goodbye to so many of our friends in 1972. Right now, however, Kevin (excited and confused) and I constitute a part of a long bewildered crowd of businessmen from France, Germany, and the United States. Mine is the most sullen face, for I am still in great revolt against life, the century, and the country which cannot care less about me and which broke people much bigger than a tired professor from a Canadian University, an institution of higher learning caught up in the process of closing its own wounded Russian program. I think of many conversations which surround such decisions and particularly of one, with brave new language, mostly about taking a two by four and cleaning out the university of unnecessary material, which includes the unprecedented periods of cultural fruition in Russia of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, caught, of course, as is always the case with that country, in the grip of autocracy and then tyranny. Saskatchewan students do not need the story (or history) that comes from people who do not know how to behave better. Morality can be based solely on political correctness. "Elena, you are about to walk into the door," Kevin warns pointing out a dirty glass enclosure.
I get even more sullen, but most of all I am ashamed that I have fulfilled so very few of the dreams of the 19-year-old girl who left the country. I can almost see her here, full of belief that the crushing exile her family was experiencing was simply a challenge, that she will become famous, make millions, and return to Russia to share money with her friends. That image of tender ignorance is unclouded by resentment or anger. It is, however, replaced by a different self. A mother of four children, I have lost most of my strength remaining loyal to the singular fight of my parenting: making sure that my children experience abandonment and pleasure reading a 19th century novel. Now I return to a country where people read standing in public transport, waiting in hallways, and enduring shopping lines.
Life, however, does not wait. I begin to hear snippets of Russian and cannot resist their pull. The bewildered noise grows around me, and I finally notice that we are checked, contemptuously and inefficiently, by a girl in a military uniform. Only one window out of six is working, while laughing customs officials are smoking in the adjacent room: they could not work even if they wanted to, for equipment to check the passports is undergoing either repair or inspection, or perhaps was never acquired in the first place. Sheremetievo is, of course, Russia's largest airport. The peculiar humour of the situation touches even my bitter heart, and the great sulk starts to melt.
Another hour and we are through customs embraced by my friends and ushered into a car, which mysteriously seats us all. There it is: Moscow in the summer. We used to return to the city during summer vacations, free and unburdened by homework. We would meet and walk down Moscow boulevards intoxicated by the dusty, lazy city covered by the fuzz of numerous poplars. All of a sudden the same mood is upon us, and my friends assure me they are relatively unoccupied this week; they just want to spend time with us. "Elena," says Kevin,"we can just enjoy this, it's summer." Indeed, we are surrounded by dust, afternoon sun, and repairs on the road. We come to the ring road surrounding Moscow which is being expanded and renovated. "This is how Luzhkov launders his money," my friends laugh clearly implying that the all-powerful Moscow mayor is a godfather of the Russian mafia. It does not take long to become attuned to the contemporary folklore. And thus I forget all the complicated failures of our life. We have come to Moscow. It has not changed. It still intoxicates with its inefficiency, its mixture of beauty and ugliness, its young people crossing the boulevards, its shops and kiosks, its mixture of old, of ancient, of grotesque, and of poor. "I did not realize," says Kevin observing how calmly my friends take the stops on the road and relax into conversation, "one feels so free here." Freedom, of course, is a relative term.
We only have nine days, seven of which are dedicated to work. Apart from meeting Mandelshtam and Bakhtin scholars (and getting precious scraps of information which fits, doesn't fit, and possibly turns upside down some of my earlier thoughts), I am also an envoy for the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. Thus I find myself in the Faculty of Law, Moscow University, tracing contacts, asking questions, and waiting in the reception room which displays centrally the portrait of Felix Dzerzhinskiy, the first Chair of the Extraordinary Committee (Cheka) which legitimized the Red Terror. The faculty and staff are so used to the portrait they forgot to take it down (or felt, perhaps, that it was an inseparable part of the ambience). When Kevin and I finish with our daily dose of meetings, we are driven by my friends who make all our plans, give suggestions that cannot be ignored, and treat us like children, but children prized and loved.
And then finally our last two days in Moscow. On the agenda: a weekend decided for us, planned and never debated, and everything is arranged, even driving (no, I am not allowed to take a train), meeting, cooking, sleeping. Our proposal to buy food is not refused (a wicked sign of the times!). So we arrive at the station called Bolshevo, one hour away from Moscow, the dream of all the Soviet yuppies who, as I see now, are building red-brick three-storey palaces.
My friend's dacha is a sad affair, but at least it stands, and the garden is spacious, beautiful, park-like. Everyone expects me to recognize everything, but I remember not the place but my memory of it and, perhaps, the smell of grass and the forest, but not this house which I visited in the summer of 1967.
Let me remember again: my grandmother and I rented a glass verandah at someone's dacha so I could be with my friends and she could leave the city. Because we were simply renting, I was not a girl to long for, to build plans with. But we all read a lot; the local inhabitants' tastes in literature were genuine but very different from mine, and that widened my interests and made our hanging-out together interesting, even exciting. I was equipped with a bicycle and invited to every gathering, for I brought no emotional baggage, no secret love entanglements. In the evening we swam in the dark-brown river and then biked back through the silent forest overwhelming in its density and its smell of pines. Invariably my grandmother worried, but I steeled my heart against any intimation of guilt. We read by bed lamps before going to sleep, but the nights seemed to me long and cold, and the problem unremedied by layers of blankets.
As I look back, I see my former financial inferiority as already the first step of my departure. For now, 24 years later, they are still the children inscribed in the landscape and I am again the visitor. "We have to see everyone", Olga says, "everyone wants to look at you." So I walk from one country house to another and meet middle-aged women and men who look like our parents did then. Those children I remember do not come out to play. Rip Van Winkle has slept his life away.
We return to Olga's dacha, met by Ghena, a brilliant former economist and a dreamer, who once entered into open combat with the system, tried to prove something to someone, and found out that nobody wanted his opinion, that the world is run by people who will shoulder all the responsibilities for his life and every other life (and, if necessary, for their extermination too); he also found that his talents were to be used only according to the plans of the big boys who make the rules and know the truth, and if he could not take the heat, then he might as well get out of the kitchen. Despite the fact of 70 years of Soviet rule, he was somehow crushed by this discovery, lost his job, discovered the blissful forgetfulness of drinking, and therein initiated an act of abandonment which in turn solved the need for clothes, food, and shelter. Now he lives with Olga's family, cooks, cleans, counsels, walks to the station to meet their kids and visitors, cleans again, paints, rebuilds, and drinks beer at breakfast, that is, if he eats breakfast. In contrast to my unsuccessful love history in Bolshevo, Ghena clearly falls in love with me, which means that he complains voluminously about my impractical friends. "None of them understands about food," he mutters and then he switches trustingly to the Absolute Spirit of Hegel. Apparently, he has condensed Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit into10 pages, and if he can condense it once more, he will, he says, encapsulate that spirit. Then he can give his notes to my husband, Kevin, whom he observes as if weighing the capacity of Kevin's brain. "You mean that little head loves philosophy?" he asks me. Before I can answer, Olga calls for butter. Ghena abandons Absolute Spirit and Kevin's head and runs into the kitchen (if you can give that arrangement by the fence such a domesticated name). An argument starts immediately. Olga is banished, Ghena scraps her oily pots and starts again, aptly, deftly, precisely.
Kevin, unaware that he is to become the happy recipient of Hegel's condensed version of Absolute Spirit, looks at me with the eyes of a frightened rabbit. "I saw this big forest," he says, "and just wanted to breathe it, and I felt a sense of horror, just plain horror." He is so disturbed that we go to Yakov, Olia's husband and the master of the dacha. He listens, starts another cigarette, and explains about the three stages of purges when Bolshevo's residents (all privileged Russian citizens) were arrested first in 1937 (the purges of the military personnel), then in 1947 (the purges of military doctors who were awarded the dachas emptied of their former military owners) and then again another generation of doctors, cleaned up in 1951 and 1952. Olia's grandfather received this dacha back posthumously. "People were shot right here in the forest," says Yakov, and Kevin visibly relaxes, reassured that he was cowed not by fantasy, but by history against whose background we now find ourselves (so many miles away from our children).
Accepting this tingling sense of dislocation, I finally become aware of the lingering July afternoon. Left alone for a few minutes I register the muffled blue and yellow of the flowers, the bitter taste of local raspberries, the broken fence, and the whisper of the tall blue-green pines. For some reason, I catch Kevin's shivering uncertainty and enter the house to pick up a sweater. The Russian ability for a chaos that would irritate any Puritan actually does have its own organizing principle: the pieces of furniture at different stages of disrepair are mingled with the mementos of one's past which are neither discarded nor classified. This permits one to embrace life as an atemporal reality at a glance. So I look at the mixture of books, postcards, letters, turn to leave, upset the pile, bend to pick up things from the floor and come face to face with Vrubel's grieving angel, a slightly asymmetrical semitic feminine creature with wings and a lilac dress.
Finally, I do recognize something. Olga's mother used to like that illustration of the famous fragment, a postcard really, and she attached it to her mirror. So I remember a balanced woman, whose every feature was proportioned and framed into a serenity which I admired but never understood, being brought up in the emotional intensity of my own family. She died twenty years ago, unexpectedly from cancer, an event which threw her daughter (my friend) into her first bout of medical depression. I was then experiencing my first wave of cultural shock in the United States, and stopped writing to my friends altogether.
More of the visitors arrive. I see them through the window, but this time I have the upper hand. Although they have disregarded every individual desire I exhibited in preparing for the weekend, I know only too well that they have an unnatural respect for a visitor's tiredness. If I pretend I am sleeping, no one will bother me; so I crawl onto the sofa which belonged to my friend's mother and actually sleep. My sleep is by no means a dream of Jacob's ladder. Instead, I linger at every emotion of the afternoon: the sense of people hidden in the forest, the smell of horror, the brown of the pine cones, the congregation of grieving angels who bounce symmetrically on the blue-green needles of the pines. Were these angels weeping when half of my family was killed? Was this the sound I heard during my childhood, surrounded, as it seemed to me, by an entranced silence? I no longer live in this neighbourhood; I walk in the places where there are no such congregations, no familiar chaos. But I was wrong. I wake up with a start. Kostya, the love of my school years, shouts by the window: "Elena Yurievna, red sun, look out of the window, I know you are faking". I look out and see them all around the table, opening several bottles of red wine, Georgian make, Stalin's favourite, as the saying goes.
The food is served. I am allowed to host the table because my friends are exhausted. I forgot that spirit of trust at a Russian table. Kostya, as in our youth, sings his songs, then plays the violin. Yakov's beautiful 20-year-old daughter, another Elena and a medical student, sings too: her small sweet voice sings about friendship, a family house united by love; her parents join in. Ghena sits next to me, nods approvingly at everything I say, looks at the table with pride, a crazy butler who has just fed his brood. Then he scratches his heels and runs to the outhouse.
I look at the faces lit up by the candle: my friend Olia unsure whether her husband Yakov still loves her; Yakov involved for years in the democratic party of Yavlinsky and frustrated to such an extent that two years ago, he started to drink with anger and devotion, and is now black in the face, generous to a fault, and unable to be helped by any woman. I look at Kevin, still submerged in memories of Saskatchewan, and he is very conscious, I know, of being surrounded by the discards of the best side of Soviet socialism; free education in specialized schools, musical conservatories, and universities are remembered by each of us as the healthiest and on occasion even magnificent aspect of the greatest modern utopia, which also demanded and took millions of lives. My friends' 20-year-old daughter pours us more wine. She has a secret dream, and clearly believes that under her medical care the country will heal its wounds. Kostya's face is hard to read; he knows that his musical career is slipping by, and that a cabaret sound is now admixed to his Bacchus-like, poignant violin. I sit there trying to soak in every minute of this chaos, only to aware of ghostly shadows behind the tall pines which surround us all.
As I sip my vodochka, I remember with nausea the long shopping excursions in Saskatchewan malls during those cold winter months, my compulsive attraction to bathroom curtains, pots, pans, teacups, towels -- maroon or yellow and sometimes displaying sunflowers against a dark blue unnatural background. And here there are no curtains, very thin towels, broken chairs, the house run aptly by Ghena the butler; and I am at home, so much so that I can make myself a little hole in the earth and lie down there for a very long time.
Misha again shares vodka between all of us. We raise our glasses (or rather the former preserve jars). "One should do everything slowly and incorrectly so that the heart of the person does not become proud," he says and we drink to that. "For the dead," adds Yakov, and we share our nectar and continue our vigil. We are crushed, I think, but this time without shame or guilt. And then so very slowly, I can move my arms and my head. I am still alive, I think, we are still not dead, we are slowly awakening for a second round of yet another flight. I look at Kevin. When was the last time I saw him happy? These wounded people accepted him as their own, happy to have a philosopher in their midst.
A year later at home, I get a phone call from Moscow. Olga calls: Ghena has died, Yakov has just survived a total toxic syndrome; he now neither drinks nor smokes. He has left politics and teaches math in the famous Moscow school #52 for gifted children. He loves her, she thinks, and she will once again gather her family around her. She just wants us to know that she misses us. I love you, I say, and am no longer humiliated, only humbled by the thought that I have never really helped them.
With this summer comes another shock. The Russian economy has lost its footing. Most of the country's financial reserves have been stripped by the country's trusted government officials. Olia and I hold on to the two ends of the phone line, separated by a vast ocean and by the vast spaces of land. It has taken us so long to regain equilibrium. So we hold on, we make no promises, for we are no longer confused by the reflected glory of hopeful plans made with innocence, care, and love.
P.S. Names and locations are altered in such a manner that the story can remain truthful, but the identity of my friends is protected.