By Jacques Tocatlian.
The Battle of Leningrad.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
Three thousand miles after leaving Paris we landed in dark, cold Leningrad.
The flight being relatively short, Brigitte could not see why we had waited so long to come to Leningrad. ‘To think that before the age of the railroad,’ said studious Françoise, ‘the journey by coach from Paris took as much as six weeks!’ Aunt Lily informed us that nowadays the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok with the Trans-Siberian railway takes more than seven days. She had inquired at a Paris travel Office, but fortunately had not pursued the idea, remembering the train scenes from the film ‘Dr. Jivago.’
The waiting line at Immigration was wearisome. The Immigration officers looked austere and grim-faced. In fact, everyone and everything around us looked cold and stern. Everyone but my four, lively girls who did not seem to notice anything. I glanced at them with some pride. Françoise and Nancy were two exquisitely attractive, young ladies. Brigitte, who had not quite turned fifty, was endowed with beauty and elegance. Aunt Lily, ageless, was glowing and resplendent. The airport belonged to them.
They chatted loudly and at random. ‘Why would the trip by train to the other end take seven days ?’ asked Nancy. Aunt Lily explained that this was a very large country. While the USA has four time zones between the east and west coasts – not counting Hawaii – the USSR has eleven. After a short silence, Françoise said with an expression of disappointment on her face, ‘The whole of France is confined to a single time zone !’ Nancy gracefully remarked that the greatness of a nation had nothing to do with the number of time zones. She had just delicately tickled our Gallic pride. We all smiled with satisfaction.
When we arrived at the Immigration counter we ran into the problem of nationality. We were given forms to fill in. Most questions were clear. But there were two different questions on the form that were confusing to us. One related to ‘citizenship’ and another to ‘nationality’ and we did not see the difference. We asked in English and French and the Immigration officer replied in Russian. It was obvious that we were getting nowhere. We were then asked to step aside and wait for a higher official.
When the latter arrived he explained everything, sternly but politely. In the USSR all citizens have Soviet citizenship, but they differ in nationality. The USSR, being a multinational state, was comprised of people of many different nations or ethnic groups. There were well over a hundred of them : Armenians, Bashkirs, Chechens, Georgians, Ingush, Komis, Mordvinians, Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, etc. Each nation has its own identity, culture and language – that is its own nationality.
The explanation was clear but what was not clear was how it would apply to us. Nancy asked if she could put ‘USA’ under ‘citizenship’ and ‘Massachusetts’ under ‘nationality’. The higher official smiled. Aunt Lily said her husband, Albert, was of Lebanese origin and asked, ‘Could I put Phoenician for nationality ?’ The higher official shouted something in Russian and the Immigration officer collected our forms and let us go through without ‘nationality’ !
The luggage clearance was expeditious since Mr. Igor Panushkin, the Representative of the Leningrad Academy of Science Library, greeted us and took over, facilitating the remaining formalities.
Igor Panushkin was probably in his late forties. He was blond, robust and charming. His English was fairly good. I knew from the very first moment we met that we would get along well. In no time we were in a large black car headed for the hotel.
At the time of our visit, the city had not yet been renamed Saint-Petersburg. Mikhail Gorbatchov had been in power since 1985 and was trying to reshape and modernize the USSR. The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks with the USA and a gradual re-establishment of warmer relations with the West had created an international slackening of tension and a spirit of hope.
The Berlin Wall had not yet collapsed and the USSR was still in existence, but the Tchernobyl catastrophe of 1986 had already uncovered for the world a definite technological obsolescence of the Soviet Union. Western assistance had been sought. Gorbatchov’s new transparent style, glassnost, and admitted need for modernization, perestroika, had made it plain for everyone that the so-called Big Power was neither so big nor so powerful.
This was the prevailing mood as, the following day, I opened the meeting with the officials of the Library of the Leningrad Academy of Science, designed to ascertain the international assistance needed by the Russians to repair the damage caused by the fire.
The dozen officials I met during my visit could be roughly divided into two groups. Those who, under the banner of Glassnost, seemed to speak the truth, outlining the weaknesses and deficiencies of the Library. And those, belonging to the old nomenklatura, who insisted in projecting a positive picture no matter what, embellishing facts and altering figures. The first group wanted international help, through Unesco. The second, did not favor any foreign intrusion.
Needless to say, my task was going to be arduous. In meetings, while each participant gave his version of the situation, I had to guess to which group each one belonged. Who was telling the truth and who was distorting the facts? Who had the real authority? Who was a technical specialist and who was a politician?
My mission was first and foremost of an exploratory nature and my task was to propose, by the end of the meeting, a workable action plan which responded to local needs. Every day I tried to understand a little more and gradually undo the puzzle.
Back at the hotel, that first evening, I felt tense. Sitting at the hotel restaurant with Brigitte, Aunt Lily, Nancy and Françoise, my mind wandered as they shared their impressions of the day with enthusiasm. I could not help but silently recapitulate in my mind the meeting discussions, try to understand their significance and think of a strategy for the following day. I had been intrigued by the statuesque woman everybody seemed to listen to with particular attention. I believe her name was Tatyana. She reminded me of Sophia Loren in her early movies.
In that frame of mind I listened with half an ear to the scintillating wit of my four, happy girls. They must have had their batteries fully recharged and were now in high social gear. They had seen fabulous things. They had to tell me everything. They spoke two or three at a time. Sometimes all four.
Did I know that Olga Ananiev, the guide that the Academy of Science had assigned to them, was just fabulous? Did I know about the famous Leningrad battle during World War II and the heroic resistance of the Russians ? Did I know that forced industrialization moved thousands of peasants, the so-called muzhiks, from the country into the city? Between 1926 and 1939 the Leningrad population had grown by 3,500,000!
‘That is why,’ said Aunt Lily, ‘most Russians you see in the street seem to react in a peasant-like manner. In the large crowds of people we have met today, the frequent body contact was unbearable to us. Not to them. In crowds they touch, push, shove . They seem to have great difficulties keeping their hands to themselves. You can tell that they still maintain the peasant traditions of their ancestral villages. The aristocratic manners of the Tsar and his court have gone with seventy years of communist wind !’
I looked around to see if anyone could hear us and asked them to be discreet. ‘By the way,’ said Brigitte ‘ speaking of discretion, do you know that someone has searched our luggage while we were gone ?’ ‘Well, I am not surprised,’ I replied, ‘But we have nothing to hide, anyway.’
Referring to the floor woman who keeps room keys, provides hot water for tea, checks every movement and controls the situation on our floor, Françoise concluding loudly, ‘She certainly works for the KGB !’
‘By the way,’ said Brigitte, ‘ look at that man with the dark glasses who pretends to read the newspaper while listening to our conversation; he has been staring at the same page for the last half hour !’
‘He is a slow reader,’ said Aunt Lily with a giggle.
‘Well, well, this is not a John Le Carré novel, nor a James Bond movie,’ I added, hoping to put an end to this type of conversation.
My remark seemed to have produced the opposite effect. It startled Brigitte who said, ‘Come on, Jacques, you remember all the spy stories you used to tell about your Soviet colleagues at Unesco? Nancy would be most interested to hear about Vladimir, the KGB spy, remember? And Mikhail’s forged birth certificate! ‘
Pandora’s box was wide open again and I would not be able to shut it for hours to come! Despite my procrastinations, I had to narrate in full detail every Unesco spy story I had once told Brigitte in great confidence. Françoise and Aunt Lily had never heard such stories and would not let me go until I told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I was not happy. We had to choose Leningrad, of all places, to have such a conversation !
I spoke in a low voice, looking right and left to make sure that no one was overhearing us. The man with the dark glasses had turned the page of his newspaper, which was a reassuring sign.
I began by recalling that most Russian officials serving abroad in USSR Embassies, the United Nations and the various specialized agencies of the UN system, such as Unesco, are either KGB officers or have been co-opted by the KGB to report on their foreign contacts. This also applies to the officials serving at home in state agencies that come in contact with foreigners. ‘It certainly applies to your guide, Olga Ananiev,’ I added, ‘ who is probably writing her report on you, right at this very moment.’
That last remark had a sudden and unexpected effect on the four of them. They became silently apprehensive and inert – totally mummified. The man with the dark glasses, intrigued by the sudden silence at our table, followed by low voice conversation, glanced in our direction and seemed to be all ears.
‘Why would they be interested in us ?’ asked Nancy. ‘Well, you have to admit that the fact that a Unesco Official comes on mission with four ladies on private business may seem unusual!’
Aunt Lily immediately replied, ‘Well, Jacques, if you thought we would create difficulties for you, you should have told us !’ ‘I think he has tried to. ‘ said Françoise. I smiled.
Brigitte put an end to this exchange by saying, ‘All of this is beside the point. We want to hear the Unesco spy stories.’
I told Vladimir’s story which had been documented back in the 70’s in le Figaro, le Monde, le Canard Enchainé and every other French newspaper under the sun.
Vladimir was a Russian spy who, like many other Russian spies, worked at Unesco, under diplomatic cover. He was smart and well-read, spoke fluent English and French, smoked one cigarette after another, was always in a hurry and regularly disappeared from his desk for no official reason. His secretary, Jacqueline, kept looking for him, running down the corridors calling ‘Vladimir, Vladimir.’ Vladimir would eventually be back at work with some vague excuse for having vanished . One day he did not return.
We learned from the local papers that he had been caught in front of the Saint Sulpice Church exchanging some documents with someone – probably concerning the supersonic Concorde. He had fallen into a trap. He was immediately expelled from France as persona non grata. A few days later some employees from the USSR Embassy were expelled as well . A couple of weeks later, a number of employees from the French Embassy in Moscow were sent back to France, in retaliation.
While finishing my dessert, I answered a thousand and one questions. Nancy remarked that, no doubt, some American colleagues at Unesco were working for the CIA. All spies need a good cover up.
I then tried to conclude by saying that, with the advent of Gorbatchov, the Cold War was probably soon coming to an end and all these spy stories would no longer be of great interest. Again Brigitte contradicted me by reminding me that Mikhail’s scandal had just taken place. The heavy bureaucratic machinery, she thought, would not react so promptly.
We had finished our dinner. The bottle of wine was empty. But I was not allowed to move unless I related the Mikhail scandal.
Mikhail was informally known in Unesco as ‘le Colonel,’ because someone had spread the rumor that he was a high-ranking colonel in the KGB. We did not know how true this was. In any case Mikhail was to retire very soon, having reached the compulsory retirement age of sixty.
One day, an official government letter from Moscow announced to the Director-General that Mikhail was no longer 60, but 55 years old. The letter explained that his birth certificate was thought to have been lost during the war, but had now been found when an old aunt died. Mikhail’s age which had been roughly estimated was now officially known for sure. The good news was that Mikhail did not have to retire and could stay with Unesco another five years! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Unesco could not question the Government’s official letter. So Mikhail stayed. His ‘curriculum vitae’ circulated under cover in the Secretariat, and was the source of several jokes. With his new birth date, Mikhail had now apparently finished high school when he was 13. He married when he was 15 and finished university at 18 ! Le Colonel became known in the Secretariat as the genius Colonel – Le Colonel genial.
So ended the first day of my mission to Leningrad. That night I had difficulties digesting the herring. My sleep was haunted by men with dark glasses, just like the Blues Brothers. I was visited by Mikhail, Vladimir, Molotov, Stalin and others. Big crowds of muzhiks were everywhere. Everyone touched, pushed and shoved. Aunt Lily shouted, ‘Keep your hands to yourselves!’ I was then accused of having no nationality. Fortunately stunning Tatyana, looking more than ever like Sophia Loren, came to my rescue. After she spoke, all the men with dark glasses disappeared and the crowds of muzhiks vanished. She whispered ‘Please do not say that the Library suffered a fire. There was no fire. Remember, no fire… no fire… no fire.’
The next working day was as frustrating as the first one. What remained unclear for me was who, in fact, was negotiating with whom. At first sight, the dozen Russians present around the table were supposed to be negotiating with me. In reality, they were agreeing, disagreeing, arguing and negotiating among themselves, through me. Again I tried all day to figure out who was whom and who wanted what.
On top of that difficulty was the difference in negotiating techniques between Russians and Westerners. Russians are expert negotiators. They negotiate in the way they play chess, planning several moves ahead. Also, while Americans and Europeans regard compromise as desirable and often inevitable, Russians regard compromise as a sign of weakness, a retreat. They are patient and have time. They wait.
An additional challenge in this particular case was that I did not have a precise position to defend or negotiate. This was a fact-finding mission. I needed to assess the damage done by the fire, listen to the needs and requirements and propose a scheme of co-operation.
During the afternoon tea break I told Igor Panushkin, whom I thought was the most open and sincere participant, ‘Look, Igor, I feel very pessimistic as to the outcome of the meeting. I am afraid I will soon have to go back to Paris empty-handed. You still have to settle many things among yourselves before we can open the doors to international cooperation in this matter!’
Soon after, he asked me if we could have an informal dinner in order to talk things over – just the two of us. I invited him to the hotel. He accepted the invitation but suggested a more discreet restaurant near the Saint Peter and Paul Fortress.
I sent a message to Brigitte to tell her about my plans for the evening and at the end of the meeting took a cab to the restaurant. The cab driver refused payment in rubles. After a little argument, I settled the bill in dollars. I had no choice. Russia was indeed changing !
The restaurant was relatively small and congenial. Most diners were seated in large groups. There were only a few diners seated at tables either alone or in small groups. Igor Panushkin had reserved a table for two in a quiet corner. When I arrived, all the zakuski , constituting the first course, were on the table with an ice-cold bottle of vodka. I admired the assortment of cold meats, a variety of fish, fresh and pickled vegetables and a lovely dish of black caviar.
In the Russian culture, as in many others, one does not attack the main issue of discussion right away. That night, the conversation first dwelled on the fabulous caviar. Igor explained that in Russia you may be served, under the name of caviar, eggs from lump, cod or salmon. That night we had the real roe of sturgeon. The best kind, for that matter : the Beluga. ‘Would you believe, it takes twenty years for the Beluga female to mature enough to produce the eggs!’ said Igor. He explained that a less expensive type existed, the Sevruga, whose female takes seven years to mature before producing the eggs. They are good but much smaller than the Beluga. ‘The caviar eggs must reach your mouth without being crushed,’ said Igor. ‘That is why we use wooden or horn spoons. No knives!’
Then, Igor tried to brief me to help me understand the complex local situation. At the beginning of the meal, when both of us were completely sober, he was very careful in choosing his words, often resorting to allegories, metaphors and other veiled, symbolic statements. As the vodka consumption increased, the talk became more direct and explicit.
In Russia, Vodka is drunk straight, ice-cold in small glasses in one ‘bottoms-up’ gulp. Russians seem to enjoy the flavor of vodka, of course, but their greatest pleasure appears to be drunkenness. They want to forget. To take measure of a foreigner, Russians usually want to drink with him. But that was not Igor’s intention. He really wished to help me understand so that, in turn, I could help him and the Library.
I remember he tried to explain a number of things. ‘First of all, one has to distinguish between old and young,’ he said. He explained that the older generations who have gone through Stalinist purges and have witnessed ideologically inspired violence are passive and less inclined to support change. The younger generations, on the other hand, have greater hopes for the future and are receptive to change. Apparently, that issue was one of Gorbathov’s dilemmas.
From what Igor later said I understood that Russia had a love-hate relationship with the West. There were two schools of thought in that respect. The ‘Westernizers’ who wanted to borrow from the West technology, management and know-how in order to modernize. And the ‘Slavophiles’ who wanted to protect Russia’s cultural values, agricultural life, and mysticism. ‘At our meeting,’ Igor said, ‘the controversy between supporters of change and opponents of Western-type reform, is apparent.’
He added, ‘Another fact to keep in mind is that neither initiative nor hard work was encouraged under Communism. The system has produced what Russians call ‘dead souls.’ There are some motivated and creative people, but they are the exceptions.’
I raised my glass to Igor and said, ‘ In Vodka veritas! You belong to the category of young, creative and motivated Westernizers!’
Russians can be uncouth, abrupt and distrustful at work. But within the intimate circle of friends they become relaxed, warm and hospitable. The real Russian soul – the famous Russkaya dusha – pops up. ‘Dusha’ is made up of sentimentality, exuberance, spirituality, romanticism, and an array of other emotions. With the help of a little vodka I thought I felt Igor’s Russkaya dusha. As a matter of fact I discovered a little bit of it in me.
‘And who exactly is Tatyana?’ I suddenly asked. Igor Panushkin smiled and replied, ‘ Tatyana Nikitine is no librarian. She knows nothing about books, libraries or fires. She is the highest representative of the Party. Tatyana is at the meeting to tow the Party line and to make sure that we minimize, in front of you, the negative effects of the fire and put up a very positive show.’
I told Igor that she had visited me in my dream and had told me in a sexy voice ‘No fire. No fire.’ He thought that it was very funny and could not stop laughing.
Igor explained that this attitude was called ‘pokazukha’ and had prevailed in Russia well before Communism. He recalled the classic ‘Potemkin’ villages which were nothing but false village facades staged along the travel route of Empress Catherine the Great to make her believe that her people lived well.
As we proceeded with our dinner, I asked Igor how could some participants twist events, invent new statistics, misstate facts in front of everyone without being embarrassed or openly challenged. ‘And to think that we are meeting under the roof of the Academy of Science !’
He said that for the Russians the fudged facts were not exactly lies, but were regarded as false village facades of the Potemkin villages that were staged for me. He then proceeded to explain that I should try to understand a Russian characteristic which is called vranyo . He quoted someone who had once said that the Russians were incapable of telling downright lies, but were equally incapable of telling the truth. Igor stared at me, expecting a reaction. I must have looked puzzled.
He proceeded to say that vranyo was untranslatable. A sort of a fib or white lie. Somewhere between the truth and a lie. It is a sort of varnished truth. Vranyo is the sign of the Russian inability to face facts, especially when they are not favorable to Russia. ‘Olga Ananiev who is helping your family and friend discover Leningrad is a master of vranyo , so is our beautiful Tatyana Nikitine! By the way,’ added Igor, ‘it is another national characteristic that preceded Communism. Dostoyevsky refers to it in his novels.’
Igor went on to explain that Russians do not consider vranyo to be dishonest. It is bad manners to openly challenge the fibber, unless it is done with subtlety and tact. It is a subtle game which is difficult to grasp by foreigners. When using vranyo , Russians know that they are fibbing and expect their audience to understand that. ‘That is why at the meeting,’ he concluded, ‘no one openly and abruptly challenged the speakers who fudged the facts , as it would be done in the West. But we did challenge them our own way, by presenting a different picture.’
The bottle of vodka was by now empty. I was physically and morally satisfied. Igor had helped me understand a little better the Russian soul as Takahashi had once helped me penetrate an inch into the Japanese soul. As to my own French soul, it felt like a Russkaya dusha. I swear I could hear mandolins and balalaikas in the air.
For the third session, the next day, I was in good shape. As usual, the meeting did not start on time. The respected virtue in Russia is not punctuality but patience. I used those extra minutes to collect my thoughts.
When the meeting actually started I said that I had very much enjoyed the discussions of the two previous days ( speaking of vranyo !). I had learned a lot from the Russian way of approaching important issues, paying due attention to all the historical, philosophical and ideological considerations of the problem at hand. The contemplation of all these considerations may have given the impression of existing contradictions. But this was only an impression, resulting from the thoroughness with which the situation was analyzed.
Now the time had come to put down on paper a few requirements for an international cooperation designed to reconstitute the foreign language collections destroyed and to assist in the restoration of the library material damaged by fire and water. I said that I wished to spend the day visiting the Library and that I would be happy to come back to the meeting the following day to consider the requirements proposed by the meeting.
The element of surprise was instantaneous as the meeting turned into Russian language with twelve participants speaking at the same time. Tea was not yet ready but a tea break was announced.
I was later taken to visit the Library and noticed that the fire had been a major one and the damage was quite serious.
In the evening, after a long and thorough shower to remove every trace of formaldehyde, I met with Olga Ananiev and my four ladies to go to the Kirov. The internationally renown Kirov Ballet, named after a Bolshevik politician assassinated in 1934, fully deserves its reputation. We were all overwhelmed by this illustrious ballet company who introduced stars such as Rudolph Nureyev, Altynai Asylmuratova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov to the world. The Sleeping Beauty performance was outstanding.
On the way out Brigitte remarked that the technical supremacy of the Kirov was breathtaking. ‘If one is to find a flaw with this company,’ she added, ‘it is that production details, such as costumes and stage effects, are considered of minor importance. But the exceptional quality of the dancing makes us blind to these shortcomings!’
Olga had reserved a dinner table in a nearby restaurant. In Leningrad, as in Moscow, it is unlikely to find a table in a good restaurant unless reservations are made ahead of time. Very often one has to order the food and drinks and pay for them at the time the reservation is made. When you arrive at the restaurant at the appointed time, the drinks and the first course, usually the zaziki, are already on the table. A little orchestra usually plays some music which contributes to the romantic, and somewhat old-fashioned, flavor imparted to the place.
Françoise wanted to know why both at the theater and at the restaurant they insisted that we first check our coats in the cloakroom. From Olga’s explanation we understood that in Russia there is a right way and a wrong way of doing everything. The wrong way is nyekulturno, which means uncultured or vulgar. Wearing coats in theaters and restaurants is nyekulturno. We pressed Olga to give us other examples. She mentioned standing with hands in pants pockets, placing feet on tables, sitting with legs spread wide and similar postures were all nyekulturno.
With a mischievous look in her eyes Aunt Lily whispered in French to her sister that it was too bad that touching, pushing and shoving in crowds was not considered nyekulturno . She then mentioned to Olga that she had seen in the hotel corridor a couple of Russian men in their pajamas and wanted to know if this was nyekulturno, as well. Olga smiled but did not answer.
The evening was pleasant as we chatted and learned a lot about Leningrad. We were amazed to hear that the Neva River is usually totally covered by ice six months in the year. We all agreed that Leningrad was among the most beautiful cities of the world. It combined severe and stately architecture with planned squares, wide avenues and many parks and gardens.
Françoise wanted to know what the word tsar meant. Olga said, ‘It was a word derived from ‘Caesar’ – a title that the autocratic dynasty of rulers that kept Russia as a vast, backward agricultural empire chose for itself.’
We thanked Olga for her company and patience and walked back to the hotel. All along I noticed that people turned around to look at us, more particularly at Aunt Lily. I had to admit that the extravagant outfits that Mademoiselle Simone had altered for her were somewhat conspicuous. The four ladies giggled all the way to the hotel. Françoise and Nancy, inspired by the Kirov ballet, walked and danced like two sleeping beauties, while I kept saying to them that it was Nyekulturno !
The next day the meeting was productive. My Russian ‘friends’ looked exhausted from the start. Even glamorous Tatyana did not look so glamorous. I figured that they must have argued all night to reach consensus. I was satisfied as I had, somehow, managed to get them moving.
In essence, they had agreed that a restoration laboratory was needed in Leningrad to treat damaged books but admitted that their staff lacked the training and exposure to advanced technologies, most of which were not available in the country. I offered Unesco’s assistance to arrange for visits where the advanced technologies could be studied.
Igor Panushkin drove me back to the hotel. We mutually agreed the outcome was positive. He seemed very satisfied. After a little pause, very calmly, he told me that there was a little problem, not related to the meeting; it was personal. Olga Ananiev had informed him that Brigitte, Aunt Lily, Nancy and Françoise had left the hotel before the 10 o’clock appointment with Olga and had not been seen since. He added, ‘You have no reason to worry, I am sure everything will be alright’. In any Western country this would not have constituted a problem, but in a Communist state, that was a different story.
We sat in the hotel lobby for ages, waiting for something to happen. Igor tried to talk to me about a variety of topics. I could not listen . I could not understand. It was already dinner time and they were not back. I was worried. I was furious. Once in a while he would go to the telephone and pretend his calls were not related to my problem. I kept asking questions about Olga, the availability of telephones in the city, about crime, rape and theft. Igor kept saying very calmly, ‘ Jacques, do not worry.’
While we were waiting, my attention was drawn to a small group of tourists who were loudly sharing, in English, their negative impressions and muttering their discontent. The short man with a yellow cigarette screwed into the corner of his mouth and the couture-conscious lady with a splendid outfit were obviously French. Nothing was quite right for them.
The other man who sounded American wore a yellow jacket, a yellow shirt, a black tie with yellow dots and black evening trousers. His imagination must have run out of ‘black and yellow’ at this point because his feet were comfortably resting in a pair of white sneakers. The tall, blond lady next to him had made an obvious effort to show every possible manifestation of wealth.
They were determined to go back home with no positive memories of their visit. The city was gloomy, the distances enormous, the people discourteous and the food suspicious. Nothing was quite right. And above all everyone spoke nothing but Russian !
There was something indecent about the way the group displayed their arrogant disdain. It must have been depressing for Igor to hear the city he loved so thoroughly condemned. I began to talk to him about the good caviar we had eaten the other evening so that he would not continue to hear any more insulting comments.
Then, all of a sudden, in glowing flamboyance, wearing one of Mademoiselle Simone’s extravagant outfits, our great diva came through the door. I jumped up, asking loudly, ‘Lily, what happened? Where are the others ?’
She calmly sat down, placidly took off her cape, smiled at Igor Panushkin and said, ‘Oh, my God, it is ever so cold! The winds are howling over the Neva. It is a brisk autumn day. We would call it winter in Paris! You should see how some women are already bundled up. Fortunately, I had my glorious cashmere sweater on.’
I flared up saying, ‘We did not expect a weather report from you! Where are the others?’
‘I do not know,’ she said unconcerned, smiling with great nonchalance. ‘We lost each other at the station. There was such a crowd ! So what?’
I was about to hit the ceiling, but tried to control myself. I asked, trembling with anger, ‘Could you explain, please. ‘
‘I will explain, of course,’ she replied serenely, ‘But you have to let me talk without interrupting me. There is no reason to be so excited, Jacques !’ I could have strangled her but decided to try and act unperturbed. Igor seemed amused by this French vaudeville.
‘Well,’ she said, looking at Igor, ‘I have always thought that to understand and appreciate a country, one should not be confined to museums, palaces and other mandatory tourist sights. There is more to Paris than the Tomb of Napoleon and the Mona Lisa ! There is more to Leningrad than the Hermitage, the Smolny Monastery and the Petrodvorets ! We wanted to see real Russia. We wanted to see how the Russians live !’
At this very moment Igor was called to the reception phone. I said to Aunt Lily, ‘Why didn’t you ask Olga to show you real Russia?’ She looked straight into my eyes saying, ‘You very well know, Jacques, that they keep you occupied 24 hours a day, overwhelming you with hospitality and attention, they overfeed you with history, statistics and propaganda, because they do not want you to see the real thing !’
Igor was back. Resuming her demure tone, Aunt Lily continued, smiling at him. ‘So we decided to be a little adventurous and just walk in the streets by ourselves. Unfortunately, we did not know how to reach Olga to let her know, so we left.’ I looked at Igor who obviously did not swallow the latter part and said to him, ‘It sounds like Vranyo , doesn’t it ?’ Igor smiled saying, ‘Da ! Da!’.
‘So where did you go?’ he asked. ‘We went to a department store and looked at prices. We bought a few gifts. We also went to a food market. We walked in the streets. We visited a small church and lit candles. We went to a railroad station to see people. What a crowd ! That is where we lost one another.’
Igor asked how she had enjoyed her day and Aunt Lily immediately assumed a melodramatic composure and said that everything had been absolutely thrilling, heart-warming and touching. I could not help but bite my lips.
Sensing my nervousness, she kept talking to Igor, as though I did not exist. ‘I was hoping to find some cashmere,’ she said, ‘Cashmere goats live in Mongolia. Don’t they?’ Igor explained that cashmere goats cannot be made to multiply like chicken. They need space and privacy for romance. No one has managed to increase the quantity of cashmere produced, and it obviously remains a luxury product.
After a long while, during which I gave Aunt Lily several icy glares, Nancy and Françoise suddenly came through the hotel door with two young men and introduced us to Ivan Marakov and Andrei Vinogradov. My eyes could not resist looking at their outfits: jeans, three-tone artificial snake skin jackets, and Western boots.
They explained that these young men, who spoke a little English, helped them find their way. On the way they had visited Andrei Vinogradov’s apartment and met his family. They had sat in the kitchen and shared some food. Real simple hospitality and warm conviviality. They spoke to each other warmly, exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. As Ivan and Andrei were leaving, I sensed that the two girls were somewhat enamored and already nostalgic.
They kept talking about their experience and sharing impressions with Aunt Lily when I asked, ‘ Has anyone seen my wife, lately?’ Igor said not to worry because she was safely being taken back to the hotel. The telephone call he had received earlier was obviously about that. I was embarrassed.
I could not believe my eyes, looking at Aunt Lily, Nancy and Françoise chatting and giggling as if nothing had happened. I had to make an effort to keep calm. Obviously, at fifty-four, I had turned into a rigid, conventional bureaucrat without fantasy or imagination.
Finally, Brigitte came through the hotel door, festive and in high spirits, walking erratically. Next to her was a tall man. Guess who ? The man with the sunglasses who was reading the newspaper in the hotel restaurant the other night. The KGB man !
She cheerfully introduced him as Victor Vassiliev. By now I was sure she must have had a few glasses of vodka. Merry and slightly tipsy, she looked and talked more like Aunt Lily. I had never noticed such a resemblance before. ‘Have you had any Vodka, Brigitte?’ I asked. ‘Well, yes.’ she replied, ‘As a substitute for central heating! Ha! Ha!’
She giddily told us that when she lost everyone at the station she panicked because she realized that she had no money and – believe it or not – could not remember the complicated name of the hotel. She had noticed all along that the man with the sunglasses had been following them all the way from the hotel to the department store, to the food market and even to church. ‘But in Church, he had not lit a candle to the holy Virgin.’ she added, laughing.
‘So, how did you meet ?’ asked Françoise. ‘I went to him at the railroad station, after I lost all of you and said straightforwardly that I knew we were staying at the same hotel. I told him that my name was Brigitte Dupont. I had no money. Could he, please, take me back to the hotel to my family.’
Victor Vassiliev who was listening to Brigitte’s account of the day did not seem terribly amused. He abruptly said goodbye and in no time disappeared, soon followed by Igor Panushkin.
Brigitte wanted to go up to the room. The four of us followed her, bombarding her with questions. She sat on the bed and laughed a great deal. I seemed to be the only one who did not think the situation was that funny. I kept asking, ‘How much did you drink ?’ She said, ‘As the Russians say, vodka is the best antifreeze for the human engine. Nash sdrovie! ‘
She then told us that Victor Vassiliev had insisted that they have some tea to warm up on the way to the hotel. Instead of tea he had ordered vodka. She could not remember how much she drank. He was very dignified, polite and charming. They chatted for a long time. He had asked her many questions but she could not remember exactly what they were. She had answered all the questions but could not remember exactly what she said. She then giggled and said.
‘At the end of this long inquisition I asked him if he had to write a report on me…ha.ha He turned pale.’ My four girls could not stop laughing. The people next door must have thought we were having a party, as Brigitte kept saying ‘Nash sdorovie!’
I turned to Aunt Lily and the young girls and invited them to quietly go to their rooms. Under the circumstances, I thought that it would be preferable to skip dinner. I told them at what time they were to be ready for departure the next day. When I turned around Brigitte was sound asleep.
We say in French: Tout est bien qui finit bien, – all is well that ends well. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, in that cold and dark Nordic night, I said to myself, ‘ The battle of Leningrad is over,’ and, raising my right hand, I solemnly swore, ‘Never again ! Never !’
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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