Printer Friendly

"Vsyo Normalno" -- in Russia.

Russia, it has been truly said, lurches from crisis to crisis. The news today portends many crises to come with many unpredictable outcomes. No single perspective -- economic, political, social, historical -- explains the reality of this country of Tolstoy and Stalin, Shostakovich and Brezhnev, Herzen and Yeltsin. No one voice -- democrat, Communist, fascist, orthodox -- speaks for the country of Pushkin and Zhirinovsky. While I waited in Moscow's Sheremetevo airport at Passportny kontrol, in what the Russians think a line, but which resembles more what might be considered a meteorological front, a Russian seeing my annoyance observed: "Russia is many countries. It takes time," as if this explained everything.

On the streets of Moscow in late August 1998, contradictory realities collide. The country seems poised in a state of anarchy that is yet not quite chaos. It is a psychological, political, social, and military entropy of a kind I associate with a Jackson Pollock painting: a centerless, disordered mass of forces, held together only by the surrounding frame. As yet, the frame has held.

The question everywhere posed and nowhere answered is "What will tomorrow be?" This state of affairs has been going on for a long time, but only now, because of the acute financial crisis, has it come full square before the eyes of the West. I have heard many hopeful and many pessimistic surmises about Russia's situation. None were more realistic and sober than those of my Virgil through the labyrinth of the formerly secret Soviet archives, Vladimir Pavlovich Naumov, a historian and leading researcher for the Presidential Commission on the rehabilitation of all those wrongfully arrested, shot, tortured, or otherwise condemned during Stalin's rule.

Professor Naumov has guided my efforts over the past several years on behalf of Yale University Press's "Annals of Communism" series, which has published previously secret documents from the Soviet archives in volumes intended to illuminate the dark recesses of Russia's Communist past. He has taken me from the archive of the Central Committee to that of the KGB, where I have sat in what I was told was the office of Nikolai Yezhov -- the KGB chief who presided over the worst of Stalin's Great Terror -- discussing with his latter-day representatives the possibility of publishing books on the repression of writers and artists in the 1920s and 1930s and Stalin's use of the Soviet judicial system as an instrument of his political will.

A deceptively frail, elderly man, reared in the Party nomenklatura and tempered by his share of disasters, deceptions, lies, and abuses of power, Naumov reiterated to me his mantra: "The country is tired," he said. For the time being, it is psychologically and morally incapable of another revolution. Furthermore, he stressed, "there is no alternative to the present situation. The Communists won't come back. The people are waiting."

When I asked Naumov whether the people would take collective action against the present circumstances, he told the following joke now flourishing in Moscow:
 Three Jews are walking down the street. One asks his friend, "Do you own a
 dacha?" His friend replies, "Of course." In turn, they ask the third who
 confesses that he's too poor to own a dacha. So they say, "Listen, we'll
 put our money together to buy you one." Similarly, three Georgians are
 walking together and the first asks the second: "Do you own a car?" His
 friend replies, "Of course, and a very fine one." They ask the third who
 replies that in fact he hasn't the money to buy one. They decide to put
 their money together to buy their friend a car. Two Russians are walking
 along and the first asks the second, "Have you ever been in prison, my
 friend?" "Of course," his companion replies. "And Piotr, has he ever been
 in prison?" the first asks. The second answers, "Why no, he hasn't. So
 let's find a way of putting him in."


This is the way Russians help each other. By the end of our first day together, Naumov confessed that he thought, "It's the end of the regime, the end of democratization in our country."

I went with Naumov to the offices of Alexander N. Yakovlev, the former ambassador to Canada and architect of perestroika during the Gorbachev years. Dr. Yakovlev is the President of the International Democracy Foundation whose mission is to publish collections of documents about the history of Communism and disseminate the truth of that history to future generations. He is the head of the commission that Naumov works on. I had met Dr. Yakovlev on previous visits, but he seemed particularly distracted and gloomy on this occasion. I asked whether he was pessimistic about the present state of affairs. "There's nothing to be happy about," he answered. When I asked whether the fact that the government couldn't collect taxes meant that the majority of the Russian people felt no loyalty to it, he bridled.

No, he insisted, it isn't a matter of loyalty. He said, "If my Foundation had a kopek, I wouldn't pay it to the government either. Why should I pay them 80 percent of the income of my Foundation? Why? For their corruption and incompetence? No," he stated emphatically, "I am a patriot. I believe in my country, but I wouldn't give them a ruble." I didn't pursue this line of reasoning, which, despite Yakovlev's protestation, demonstrates the degree to which the fundamental social contract of the Russian Federation is in jeopardy.

He has recently written a very moving account, Krestosev ("The sowing of crosses"), of the crimes of the Stalin era and beyond. He points out that the only way for Russia to get beyond its past is to acknowledge it, face it openly, and grieve for all the wreckage Communism wrought. He despairs of the fate of the Russian peasantry, mourns the loss of Orthodox religion, and points out that at the present day there are over 150 anti-Semitic, fascist newspapers, some with large circulations, poisoning the minds of the people.

I offered him a copy of our new publication, Socialist Realist Painting, and, in accepting it, he said tartly: "There is not now and never has been any socialist realist art. It is a contradiction in terms." He is a man searching for a way out of the intellectual, political, and spiritual collapse of his universe. In the end, he said quite simply, "what can you do when you have no money?"

I asked whether he might be interested in commissioning a textbook on Soviet history using the documents Yale University Press and the Democracy Foundation have published. He paused. Naumov broke in, "It's not possible." To write a textbook means to construct a narrative with a unifying conception. No one would dare to undertake such a daunting and dangerous task at the present time. To offer a unified interpretation of the history of the Soviet period means, first, that you wish to know the truth and, second, that you have the courage to tell it. Many people today think that enough documents have been published. The history of that time is still not even being taught in most Russian high schools and universities. No one dares. "It will take a generation," Naumov added, "if not more." Both men agreed that the attitude of the government toward their commission would be a key signal as to its future ideological direction. The question of openness is in the balance.

On August 24, the ruble was trading at 7000 to the dollar (or 7 since the government lopped off the last three zeros by flat some months ago). When I'd been in Moscow last January it was trading at approximately 5000 -- a 40 percent decline in its purchasing value. Initially this decline directly affected only those Russians who had money in the banks. Most do not. But in the last two months the ruble has slid to over 12,000 to the dollar and the effects of this fall have spread throughout the economy raising the specter of hyperinflation, which will affect everyone. And yet, outside of the cities in regions where people simply have no money and haven't had for a long time, it is not the decline of the ruble but the failure of the potato crop that poses the gravest threat to their well-being.

My translator tells me that she has been trying to purchase a new apartment for the past five years and her situation has been very adversely affected. Her present apartment is valued at $35,000 and she has saved another $10,000 in rubles, which she has kept in a bank. The apartment she wishes to purchase costs $50,000. The devaluation of the ruble means that she will now have to cam not another 25,000,000 rubles but perhaps as much as 50,000,000 rubles to purchase the apartment. Her salary will not compensate for the decline, and, if the ruble sinks lower, so will she, so will the future of her six-year-old daughter, and so will the lives of her ailing and elderly parents with whom she lives. Nevertheless, her main worry is that the Reds will be coming back, as she puts it, and that the country will be shut down.

Dmitri Kozirev takes another view. This grandnephew of former Politburo member Dmitri Shepilov is a journalist specializing in the Far East. Moscow is more panicked than elsewhere, he told me, because here people buy more goods that arc dollar-based. It's true that the country is drained of money and that the situation is unpredictable. Nevertheless, he said, the country is big, very big, and it is impossible for the same thing to happen everywhere -- some sections with strong Communist allegiances may wish to secede. There may be civil war for a time. But the country will survive. "You must understand," he stated, "the Communists are not Communists, the liberals are not liberals, the nationalists are not nationalists. Anything can happen. No one is in control." Kozirev thinks that the whole model for reform was wrong from the start and that Russia will now turn to Asia and away from Europe. It may try to model itself on the reasonably successful China or even India. Things, he thought, would settle down in three to four months. When I asked if he thought hyperinflation was a danger, he said, "Not at all. It's the solution. The only way is to print money." Let the country hit rock bottom and then build from there.

But what is at the bottom? When I asked Professor Naumov once about getting to the bottom of the Kirov Assassination of 1934 in the KGB archive, he said assuredly we would get to the bottom of the plot to kill Sergei Kirov. "But," he added slyly, "you must realize, the KGB archive has many bottoms." The situation in Russia also has many bottoms.

Along Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which leads from the Square of Victory -- commemorating the Soviet defeat of Hitler -- to the center of Moscow, the people go about their daily business. There is no visible panic on the street, although here and there one can see long lines in front of currency exchanges, men and women with paper bags full of rubles desperately trying to change them into u.s. dollars before the ruble disappears from sight. I witnessed no obvious social unrest. Rather, one sees people suffused with the fatalism Naumov had expressed to me, while above their heads and at eye level is a picture world vastly in contrast to their own.

Throughout Moscow one sees billboards advertising a cellular telephone company that read in English simply: BE HAPPY. At practically every block, one sees an advertisement declaring: THE ANSWERING BLOW. It consists of a picture of a goldplated 1930s Socialist Realist man and woman, arms thrust forward in true revolutionary style. But whereas in the 1930s they would have been brandishing the red flag of revolution, now they hold up a package of Zolotaya cigarettes against the backdrop of the New York City skyline. This is the answering blow, struck against American domination of the tobacco market, the new revolution being sold the Muscovites racing to cash in their rubles.

Elsewhere one finds shop windows stocked with expensive, foreign products: Sport Siti ("Sport City") offering Reebok, Kettler, Speedo, Adidas, BH Fitness, and Bauer products all at 20 percent off. A Xerox Copy Document Center. "Clothes for the home and relaxation" presents a shop window filled with stylish black and white undergarments for men and women. In another shop with the name "Men's and Women's Clothing" one sees Dior, Wolf, Lejany, and Alessandra Traini brands. An eyeglass store displays Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Tiffany, Oliver, and Longines eyewear. Beside this storefront is a window declaring itself to be Dizain Tzentr ("Design Center"). Here one sees the picture of a clean, well lit, modish, all-white room. In the background is a heap of art books. On top is an album of Walter Albini. In the foreground is a white sofa with an attractive, blond-haired young woman seated, legs crossed, upon it. She wears black bobby socks and has short cut hair. She covers her face with her hand as if she'd just heard a great joke or terrific news about the novel she's just written. The white telephone receiver lies face down on the sofa; beside her on the other side is her portable typewriter; at her feet is an open telephone book. That last detail is the giveaway: There are no telephone books in Moscow. This shop window does not advertise a sofa or even a design, it advertises a dream. No Russian who passes by has sat on such a sofa, used such a telephone, written such a novel, or received such a call.

The dream is heightened by what follows, a window displaying the holy triptych of the New Russian kitchen, which, in the encoded visual language of the New Russia, possesses a quasi-religious meaning. The window display is divided into three adjacent panels depicting a shiny new dishwasher, a stainless steel sink, and a wood-paneled work space overhung with copper pots and pans.

Not only is there an extreme disjunction between the products offered for sale in these windows and the capacity of most of the passersby to purchase them, but also the store fronts themselves typify the deeper crisis of identity through which the country is still passing. These windows display not the name of a store or a company but only the products they contain. The store for glasses is called simply Ochki ("Glasses"), the store for clothing is called simply Odyezhda ("Clothing"). Similarly, the stores for fish are called not Swenson's Fish Mart, but rather simply Fish. The stores for shoes are called not Johnson's Shoes, but rather Shoes. One buys milk at a store called Moloko ("Milk") and bread at a store called Khleb ("Bread"). True, here and there one finds a Sport Siti, Baskin-Robbins, Pizza Hut, or McDonald's, but these are largely foreign enterprises while the Russian stores, carrying Russian goods, bear no family name, no descriptive title, no proprietor's grandiose or silly self-projection, no attempted image.

Despite seven years of "democratization" and "privatization," there is a nameless, alien quality to the street life still, an absence of personality, a withdrawn human presence that reflects more clearly than any other outward sign the truth of what Naumov has repeated to me: the most difficult thing to understand about the present situation in Russia is what he calls the mentality of the people. Only this, he insists, will explain where the country will go.

Naumov is convinced that the mentality of the people is conditioned by their exhaustion, not their frustrations or expectations. It is shaped by a past, which, as much as they try to escape it, has taught them patience and providential self-protection. Despite the flood of foreign goods, democratic vistas urged on by advertising, and dreams of quick money, it is a psychology of scarcity, frugality, making do, and self-effacement.

That morning, I met with the head of one of the largest and most important of the State archives. It is also one of the most prosperous. After our business meeting, he sat down on the edge of his desk, clasped his large hands in his lap and smiled boyishly. "Jonathan," he said, "it can't get worse." And then a kind of black rage took hold of him: "Jonathan," his voice rose, "I need money. I have no money. What will I do? What? I have no money." He paused, stared at the floor. Then, as if to reassure himself, he said: "I'll survive somehow. We'll all survive somehow. We did before. There'll be a black market. Let them close the country. Let them make it thirty kopecks to the dollar. We did it before. We'll do it again."

Back on the street, I saw the billboard for the new Russian edition of Vogue. The caption reads: V Rossii Nakonyets ("In Russia at Last"). The photograph shows two models facing each other at a right angle so that their chests just meet (a loaded visual pun perhaps on a tete a tete meeting of the minds?). One is clearly American, blond, full face, smiling into the camera; the other, in profile, is a silky brunette with distinctive Slavic features. Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral hover in the background. What is the message of their tight fitting shirts and open smiles except that the meeting of East and West takes place at a point of contact charged with money, fashion, and sex, forcing the stolid power of the Kremlin and the mystical power of St. Basil's into the background -- at last? Nothing can stop the supercharged sexual imagery of the Nineties, not even the thirteen-foot thick walls of the Kremlin, not even the dreamy spires of St. Basil's. Put all of that behind you, the poster seems to say, and let's just enjoy ourselves.

Beneath an overhead billboard advertising elite apartments at $1900 per square meter, a bearded man with the watchful face of a Chekhov coachman sat on the curb waiting. A stray dog looked out of a doorway, unaware that the headline in the leading financial paper, Kommersant, was the simple word: Obval ("Collapse").

I marveled at the composure of the people I saw along Kutuzovsky Prospekt. Only a man and a woman feverishly counting out rubles from a large shopping bag before a currency exchange gave any outward sign of what the headline of Kommersant declared: Obval. I had heard the word on the lips of people in conversation, I had heard what the director of the state archive had said, but to see it an acknowledged fact in the leading financial paper gave the notion objective, public reality. But what did it mean? To speak of the collapse of the ruble is one thing, to speak of the collapse of the country is another. I turned into the doorway of my apartment building, located in the housing complex in which Brezhnev and Andropov once lived, musing on this question.

Since my last visit in January, the building's entryway had been repainted, the elevator, which had not worked in previous years, had been repaired, and a new front door had been installed (the coded entry system put in a year ago also still functioned). The owner of the small, three room apartment is an elderly widow who goes to live with her daughter when I come. She has a new front door with strong brass locks, but, aside from that detail, little in the apartment has changed. Not that it should have since January (I discovered two newspapers I had discarded on my last visit preserved in a heap on her table), yet my overpowering feeling is that little here has changed since the victory over Hitler in the Great Patriotic War. The tables, the chairs, the beds, the sink, the stove, the toilet, the twig broom in the corner, the mirrors, the bathtub, the plastic shower curtain reaching only halfway across the tub and hung on a single strand of wire all combine to drive this impression home.

As luck would have it, I arrived in Moscow at the time when the hot water had been turned off in my section of the city. I was told that the hot water gets turned off for certain periods in order that repairs can be made to the aged pipes. A likely enough excuse, I thought, for what was probably some kind of administrative incompetence. On other visits the water did run yellow for longer than I would have liked, but, in the heat of August, I would have put up with dirty pipes for a tub of steaming water. I was told the hot water would be restored on Wednesday, and I made a secret wager: if it was, I would know that Moscow was ruled by cause and effect; and if not, that Gogol, not Yuri Luzhkov, was the mayor. But perhaps, on reconsideration, I was wrong. Perhaps only in a Gogolian absurd world could the hot water have been turned back on when it was rumored it would. No one I spoke to could be sure.

But on Wednesday morning, still unable to sleep at 2 AM, and still without hot water, I decided to prepare a bath with whatever means at my disposal. Generally, I use the aged, gas stove only to boil water for tea or coffee. At two in the morning, I looked into all the kitchen cupboards for pots and discovered several old aluminum vessels which I filled. When I lit the stove, flames shot up six inches from the burners. The water never boiled, but it got hot enough in one of the smaller pots to carry to the tub. I poured it in. Five minutes later, I returned with another pot, only to find that the water I had poured in had drained away through a leak in the plastic plug. After an hour of boiling and carrying and stopping the leak, I immersed myself in about four inches of warm water. The next evening when I returned from my appointments, hot water ran from the spigot.

Every arrangement is frangible, held together, it often seems, by no more than the accumulation of dust and grease and long habit. At a touch, the careful arrangement of aged suction cup soap holder, dishtowel, and faucet falls apart. Touch the mirror in the bathroom and it swings wildly to the side. Turn on the flame of the 1940s stove and it soars to the ceiling. Try to wash yourself in downtown Moscow in 1998 without hot water.

The following day, I went to one of Mayor Luzhkov's grandest and most impressive accomplishments: the construction of a magnificent mall over the Moscow River. It was built by Austrians and has an exceptionally fine atrium filled with expensive foreign shops. We ate at Vensky dvor ("Viennese Court"). I had a perfectly prepared smoked salmon sandwich with cucumbers, horseradish, and baby tomatoes presented with a sprig of fresh parsley and accompanied by whole grain rolls served with Austrian butter. A healthy Jack Daniels so ldom ("with ice"), followed by a perfect cappuccino sweetened with Suiker from Holland.

All of this overlooking the Moscow River, with a clear view of the White House and, beyond, the Kremlin. Open, light, brand spanking new, with slow-running escalators and moving walkways, it has the motif of a ship sailing high over Moscow with portholes and deck chairs. It is a marvelous conception full of optimism for the future. But as Petrovich, an archivist and historian, pointed out to me, it is a ship that isn't going anywhere; there were more security guards, walking about with cellular phones and walkie talkies and MVD badges, than customers. Above the dining area was not only an up-to-date sprinkler system in case of fire, but also a closed circuit television camera in case, one can only conclude, a customer decided to pocket some of the silverware, or a few additional rolls. Old traditions die hard.

I asked Petrovich what he thought about religion and the rebirth of it in Russia. "We're all pagans," he stated, though he confessed some interest in the subject himself and said that a generation of "candle holders," as they are called, has come into existence over the past few years -- people who go to church, hold the candles, and sing, but believe in little or nothing of the religion.

In his middle forties, Petrovich is the Kendo master of Moscow and as such has made several trips to Japan to study this martial art and compete. This is more of a religion to him than anything else. What is the philosophy of Kendo, I asked. It is, Petrovich explained, to release oneself from the particularity of your own ego, to see the sword coming down on you and to move and thus save yourself, rather than become preoccupied by your fear of the sword and what it may do to you if it strikes. Such inner preoccupation would lead to certain death. It is a philosophy of detachment. It does not justify anything. It allows you simply to sec what is the case, free of your own desires, wishes, fears. What is the case is what is necessary and what is necessary is what is summed up in the word normalno ("normal" or "line"), which Petrovich invokes time and again in our conversations in Moscow and e-mail communications. I ask Petrovich, how are things? The response invariably is "vsyo normalno": "everything's fine." What is normalno? I asked him once. It is, he answered, what is necessarily the case. Only now at lunch at Vensky dvor do I understand the import of this word.

Later, I returned to Professor Naumov's Moscow apartment to discuss various projects. It is a spacious apartment packed floor to ceiling with books and journals and file folders. Pictures of his children and grandchildren are on every wall, and on the floors arc beautiful old Turkish rugs. Naumov has a small desk in the corner of his living room surrounded with papers and stacks of documents. Across from his desk is a relatively new Panasonic television with, I would judge, a sixteen-inch screen. My eye follows the electrical wire to where it plugs into a 1940s wall socket.

When we arrived, Naumov had been engaged in cutting xerox copies of a document out of oversized sheets of copy paper and, after our greeting, he sat down at his desk and resumed this task while discussing the current state of the country. After he finished cutting out each page, he took the leftover strips of paper, arranged them carefully into piles of equal length and width, bound them with oversized, Soviet-era paper clips, and then stored them away in his desk drawer, to be used, I imagined, for future note-taking or other purposes.

Our conversation lasted several hours. Again and again, he came back to the notion that the mentality of the country was something deeper than anything that could be witnessed on the street. The people would wait. The people would survive. They were not ready for further political upheavals. Everything would stay the same. There was no alternative. At least not yet.

Perhaps Professor Naumov is right, that the people lack the inner means of producing a new revolution. The clothes, the colors, and the mere material culture of tablecloths, kitchen chairs, dishpans, and typewriters suggest this. But in the end it is the people's faces themselves, the lined, aged, slightly sallow or ruddy complexions one sees on the street, the hands of farmworkers or stevedores, the hands that serve you in a restaurant or sign a government contract, the thick, treelike legs of the old women wrapped in support stockings. All this was appropriate to overthrowing the Tsar and building socialism and defeating the Nazis, but is it appropriate to advertising for "Global Choices," or "The New Russian Kitchen"? Is it appropriate for manipulating the stock market, experiencing Vogue's meeting of the minds in Red Square, and finessing the social, ethical, and psychological indeterminacies of postmodernity?

The following day is Saturday, and Naumov has invited me for shashlik to his dacha thirty minutes outside of Moscow in an area where many former members of the elite nomenklatura now mix with the New Russians. This is an experience greatly to be prized. In fact, Naumov's wife, Valentina Ivanovna, is preparing two feasts. Before the shashlik in the evening, we will have a full Russian midday dinner.

The ruble is not being traded today and the city has a chance to catch its breath. (I will not be in Moscow when trading begins again on Monday and the ruble will sink further and the hyperinflation will begin to set in in the Moscow shops, and the fortitude of the people will be tested more severely.) Saturday is a beautiful day of respite, alternately rainy and bright. The black-green forests of tall birch trees and towering pines glimmered as we drove past roadside stalls displaying pyramids of enormous yellow melons and small, perfectly round, bright green watermelons. They are sold by dark-skinned southerners come seasonally to Moscow, probably for the past millennium, to offer their produce as evidence of the eternal fertility of the soil and the people who live upon it.

This will be a long day of pleasure, of eating, drinking, discussing politics, the Soviet past, our beloved documents, admiring the beauties that everywhere abound in the only half-tamed forest in which Naumov's modest dacha is set. His son Oleg, Assistant Director of the former Central Party Archive, has himself rebuilt the house, laid new floors, put up new pinewood paneling, reconstructed the upstairs study out of which Naumov can look into the forest and survey the work of some of his New Russian neighbors who are busily constructing new dachas of their own, using Swiss architects and materials imported in containers from all over the world. "New Russians," Naumov mutters dryly.
 A New Russian is driving his new Mercedes down the highway when he comes
 upon a friend, also a New Russian, stopped along the shoulder, the hood of
 his new Mercedes opened up. The first man stops and asks what's wrong. The
 second says, "This car is no good. Look at it. Now I've got to buy a new
 one." "What's the matter with it?" It's out of gas."


Before eating, we hunted for mushrooms. My translator went into a dense group of spruce and came out with a handful of the prized brown fungi. Valentina Ivanovna stood on the porch of the house and said, "Here is something that absolutely cannot be found in America." This is a recurrent concern: to find something in Russia with which America cannot compete. She pointed under a tall spruce at a bright, lithium red mushroom; beside it, like a twin, was another that glowed orange like a harvest moon. Quite beautiful. Quite deadly. Here they're called "fly killers."

Valentina Ivanovna is a large woman with a great physical frame; for the past two years, she has suffered from a weakened heart and must take frequent naps. Yet she had worked alone all day in the kitchen. The table included chicken cutlets fried in an egg batter, brown bread, eggplant stuffed with soft cheese and various seasonings, braised potatoes, pear tomatoes, and cucumbers, along with some kind of pressed meat served with horseradish. Then she brought out her favorite dish: homemade pizza with sausage, mushrooms, onions, and red peppers.

We drank toast after toast, consuming first a bottle of Glenfiddich and then two-thirds of a bottle of Chivas Regal, which I had brought. Other bottles on the table remained: red and white juices, Georgian wine, and special vodka. These we would come to in due course. No one got drunk. Afterwards, Valentina Ivanovna rested while the rest of us stayed at the table discussing the Doctors' Plot and other late Stalinist crimes.

Naumov and I went upstairs to his study overlooking the dense forest. "To understand history" he told me, "you have to overcome the documents. Documents by themselves will never be enough. In fact, very little was written down." The Katyn Forest massacre, he tells me, may be unique because it was here that Stalin miscalculated, thinking that since Poland had been wiped out and would never again be a state it was not dangerous to save the documents authorizing the murder of the nearly 20,000 Polish officers. In general, Stalin communicated his intentions in "half-words" hints, and casual remarks. For instance, after a Politburo meeting in which it was decided that a man should be arrested, Stalin as a rule would not sign a decree or arrest warrant, he would say only, "It's a pity. X was such a good man." The others would know what he meant and act accordingly. That is why the documents that do exist are so precious. As another example, Naumov said that although Khrushchev was on the Politburo for years, there are virtually no Stalin-era documents with his signature on them. Does this mean he did not take part in the decisions? No. It means that he destroyed most of the documents after he took power.

We are called down for shashlik. There is still plenty of light in the sky, but the air has gotten thin and chill. On the table is an enormous platter of this Russian delicacy which we eat until it and we are exhausted. More toasts. At the end, Valentina Ivanovna places the yellow melon I had brought in the center of the table. She leaves it there for several minutes so that all can admire its size and bright yellow color. She says, "Do you think it is good?" Then she takes it into her lap and with a large kitchen knife cuts it into wedges. Carefully removing the rind and disposing of the plentiful seeds in a separate dish, she distributes the melon which a selected person samples as we would wine. When it is found to be sweet, everyone is allowed to eat.

Naumov stands up and raises his glass and says that the most important outcome of our project is the trust and friendship it has yielded that is not simply professional. I second this and say that this trust and friendship are all the more precious in light of the world of lies, paranoia, suspicion, and deviltry we are studying in the documents, a world, moreover, that existed not so long ago.

Jonathan Brent is the editorial director of the Yale University Press. He is currently writing a biography of Isaac Babel.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brent, Jonathan
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:5799
Previous Article:Pink pigeons & blue mayonnaise.
Next Article:Franz Kafka & the trip to Spindelmuhle.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters