I find Russia to be frightening, maddening, decadent and exhilarating. A bipolar mood descends upon me with an odd regularity just about every time I read Russian history or travel memoirs. Russia has a way of jumping off the page, scaring and fascinating in equal measure. The cause of this seductive fear happens to be the unforgettable stories, so memorable that I can still recall where I read them. Not the exact page, but close enough that memories of these stories cause me to delve into my library late at night. Thumbing through the pages, scanning the text at the speed of sight, willfully suspending disbelief, I do this to convince myself that the impossible and improbable are normal when it comes to the Russian experience.
The Other Side of Midnight
The following anecdotes are where history gets turned on its head, the world spins backwards and the illogical reigns supreme.
“One prisoner recalled being told by a Chinaman that he, like many others, had been arrested because he had swum across the Amur River to the Soviet Union, attracted to the views on the other side: The green and gold of the trees…the steppes looked so beautiful! And everyone who crossed the river from our area never came back. We thought that this meant that life must be good over there, so we decided to cross. The minute we did we were arrested and charged under Article 58, Section 6, espionage. Ten years.” – Anne Applebaum, Gulag
Then there was this gem of ironic insanity, A bit of fatal vanity. The impulse of an unthinking urge leads to a bloodstained impression.
“During the bombing, an old man climbed out of the trench to retrieve his hat, and his head was chopped off with all of his neck.” Vasily Grossman, A Writer At War
Russia is more than Moscow or St. Petersburg, just as Siberia is much more than the Gulag, it is a wild place filled with wildlife, not all of it human. This from a travel article on the Baikal-Amur-Mainline Railway (a rail line north of the Trans-Siberian Railway, over 2,600 miles in length):
“I asked a station attendant if there were many bears here.
“All over,” he said. “During the spring you can see them from the track all the time. Sometimes we get calls from railroad workers along the tracks to help rescue them when they get cornered.” He smiled tightly. “Occasionally we get there and find nothing but blood.” – Finn-Olaf Jones, The Other Siberian Railway, New York Times
Western Russia used to be just as wild. The most European city in Russia, St. Petersburg, was a howling wilderness even in the years after it was settled, as this anecdote shows:
“It took six years for St Petersburg to accumulate 150 houses. Five years after Peter had moved his court there, the city was still such an outpost in the wilderness that a wolf supposedly ate a woman in broad daylight in the city centre.” – Capital Punishments, The Economist
Side stepping self-destruction
One of the most incredible feats of 20th century history was the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany. What makes the victory so unbelievable is how the army overcame an even worse enemy, themselves.
“The Russian had been a mate on a ship called the Vanzetti – its sister ship was the Sacco – a decrepit freighter captained by a notorious drunkard. In a convoy of fifty ships crossing the Atlantic the Vanzetti was so slow it dropped far behind, and one day, when the convoy was almost out of sight, a German submarine approached. The captain radioed for assistance, but the convoy sped away, leaving the Vanzetti to fend for herself. The Vanzetti somehow eluded two German torpedoes. The sub surfaced for a look, but the drunken cannoneer had swung his rusty cannon around; he fired once, puncturing the sub and sinking it. The Germans, came to believe that this hulk, manned by incompetents, was a secret weapon, and gave the convoy no further trouble. When the Vanzetti limped into Reykjavik, the British organized a special party for the Russians, who showed up two hours late, bellowing obscene songs, and the captain, paralytic with drink, was awarded a medal.” Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
Of all the stories I have read about Russia, the following one has stuck in my mind the longest. A terrifying bit of madness. During the Second World War, Russia became an apocalyptic battleground where everyone was fair game including one’s own countrymen.
“Two friends of Anatoly Darov, a young man and his girl named Dmitri and Tamara, visited the Haymarket in January of 1942. They had determined to buy a pair of valenki or heavy felt boots for a friend. By every kind of economy, Tamara had managed to put aside 600 grams of bread to be traded for boots.
The pair made their way to the Haymarket. Neither had visited it before. At first they could find nothing, but men’s boots – policemen’s or conductors’. These were too big and crude. Finally they saw a very tall man who was extremely well dressed by blockade standards, wearing a fine fur hat, a heavy sheepskin coat, beautiful gray boots. He had an impressive beard and despite the starving times seemed to be filled with strength. In his hands he held a single woman’s boot, exactly the kind the young people wanted.
They bargained for price. He asked a kilo (about 2 pounds) of bread for the boots. The young man offered 600 grams (about 1 ½ pounds). The giant examined the bread and finally agreed to take it. The other boot, he said, was at his flat in the tangle of Dostoyevsky streets nearby. With some trepidation the man started off with the tall peddler. Tamara warned him to be careful. “Better to be without valenki than without your head, she said, half-joking.”
The two men entered a quiet lane and soon came to a good-sized building that had not been damaged by either German gunfire or bombing. Dmitri followed the tall man up the staircase. The man climbed easily, occasionally looking back at Dmitri. As they neared the top floor, an uneasy feeling seized Dmitri. There leaped into his mind the stories he had heard of the cannibals and how they lured victims to their doom. The tall man looked remarkably well fed. Dmitri continued up the stairs but told himself he would be on guard, ready to flee at the slightest sign of danger.
At the top floor the man turned and said, “Wait for me here.” He knocked at the door, and someone inside asked, “Who is it?” “It’s me,” the man responded. “With a live one.”
Dmitri froze at the words. There was something sinister about them. The door opened and he saw a hairy red hand and a muglike face. From the room came a strange, warm, heavy smell. A gust of wind in the hall caught the door, and in the swaying candlelight Dmitri had a glimpse of several great hunks of white meat, swinging from hooks on the ceiling. From one hunk he saw dangling a human hand with long fingers and blue veins.
At that moment the two men lunged toward Dmitri. He leaped down the staircase and managed to reach the bottom ahead of his pursuers. To his good fortune, there was a light military truck passing through the lane. “Cannibals!” Dmitri shouted. Two soldiers jumped from the truck and rushed into the building. A moment or two later two shots rang out. In a few minutes the soldiers reappeared, one carrying a greatcoat and the other a loaf of bread. The soldiers with a greatcoat complained that it had a tear in it. The one said, “I found a piece of bread. Do you want it?”
Dmitri thanked the soldier. It was his bread. The 600 grams he had planned to trade for the valenki. The soldiers told him they had found human hocks from five bodies hanging the flat. Then they got back into their truck and were off to Lake Ladoga, where they were part of the Road of Life.”– Harrison Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad
Somewhere buried deep in the pages of Edvard Radzinsky’s biography of Josef Stalin is a story that might serve as a metaphor for 20th century Russian history. During one of the periodic waves of terror unleashed during the Stalin era, people both great and small, feared arrest. Fear was everywhere, arrest inevitable. Many went ahead and packed their suitcases, ready for that knock on the door late in the night. Behind those fists banging to be answered, there would come calling the NKVD (precursor to the KGB). They would arrive and carry the unfortunate away to life in the camps, death or even worse, a torturous journey towards soul destroying oblivion.
Those expecting to be arrested were terrified, to the point where one unlucky soul, after hearing a car pull up outside his residence was sure the reapers had come calling for him,. He took flight, not from his potential captors, but life itself. Leaping out of a window to his death, he had committed suicide before he like so many millions of others suffered the inevitable. The dark irony was that the car did not carry NKVD agents. There would have been no knock on his door that night. He had committed the ultimate act out of pure fear. That man jumping to his death could symbolize Russia, stuck between the choice of committing suicide or state sanctioned homicide. He leaps into the air, falls into the unknown, a reflection of a society, a people, a nation crashing down on itself.