July 01, 2019

Castle of Concrete

Castle of Concrete
GAZ-21 Volga ID111488759 / Dreamstime

In this new novel, set in the final year of the Soviet Union, young Sonya is reunited with her once-dissident mother, and they are on their way to navigating a new life together.


“Where to?” asks the driver, giant and solid as an armoire.

“Moscow Region, the city of Lubertsy,” Mama says.

My heart does a flip. That’s my new address. Our new address.

Mama doesn’t have much cash on her, but apparently a pack of imported cigarettes counts for a lot around here. The giant invites us into his Volga sedan with neither a taxi sign nor a speedometer.

A Volga! I marvel. The very best kind of a car ever produced in my lovely Motherland.

Mama squeezes my hand. “Let the adventure begin!” she whispers. Like I am still ten years old, and she’s visiting me in Siberia.

I smile back at her. I’m not much of a talker.

Castle of Concrete
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The luxurious car races us toward the setting sun. Past the Moscow River contained in its concrete bath, past the castlelike towers of churches, we ride in the once favorite vehicle of communist chiefs. I have the entire backseat to myself, like I am some kind of a princess. My muscles still throb from a three-day cross-country train journey. But I am a princess, or that’s the way it feels, behind me a pair of swan wings from an old Russian fairytale.

I lean this way and that, angling for a better view of thin gold crosses that pierce the sky atop the churches’ onion-shaped heads.

“Haven’t had myself a decent smoke in a hundred years.” The man lights up his newly acquired Marlboro, sharing the light with Mama.

“Just look at this!” the driver says.

Outside the Volga’s window two women Mama’s age walk by, wearily swaying their miniskirted thighs. A beggar babushka makes the sign of the cross.

I turn my face away from the begging grandma. The driver’s lively little eyes find mine in the rearview mirror.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Fifteen,” I say, reddening.

“Just turned last week,” Mama adds, and I redden more.

“So?” the driver asks. “You like democracy?“ He spits out the word.

“I like it,” I manage. My voice comes out all squeaky and rusty-sounding, like a door that hasn’t opened for centuries.

“Sure you do.” The man nods. “You can say anything, say this country is a pile of stinking shit, and no one will start a case on you. Pardon my rudeness.” He sounds so stiff and unnatural that my blush deepens. “Before it was ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’? Now, it’s: ‘Believe in Buddha if you like!’ Before, we were building communism. Now we’ve got perestroika, now we are restructuring. But what good is it? Isn’t it like rebuilding a house using the same rotten wood it was built with in the first place?”

I don’t want to listen to him. I am a swan princess. But his question gnaws at me.

Can we change, rebuild ourselves, grow free from the inside?

Outside the window, the grand buildings from the city center give way to ordinary blue kiosks that sell vodka and newspapers, the kind I used to walk by in Siberia. I peer hard through the glass foggy from my breath, trying to find Moscow in the chipped, scrappy façades that might have been white once.

“The old, hardline communists sure don’t like it, though.” The man keeps poking the air with a thick finger. “I hear they’re getting ready to take back power. I hear it’s, ‘goodbye, Gorbachev’ soon. Goodbye, perestroika.”

Mama turns around and gives me a quick look, a roll of the eye, as if to say, Don’t you pay attention to this goat. The man’s words go on spewing like diesel fumes. As he talks, he keeps glancing at me. I really wish he wouldn’t. “Perestroika! Young girls selling themselves on the streets! Retirees, invalids begging right out in the open! All sorts of nationalists rousing! Anti-Semites popping out of nowhere....” He turns around and steals a look at Mama, raising a thick eyebrow.

“They aren’t popping,” Mama says quietly, her eyes fixed on an invisible spot just ahead. “They’ve been there all along.

“Besides,” Mama adds at a red light, “it’s because of your tiresome perestroika that my daughter and I can finally be together again.”

The driver turns his head and stares at her so long I fear the car will crash into the back of a giant truck spewing gray diesel all over his Volga’s front window.

“Prison?” he asks in an awed whisper, examining her still.


Mama takes a long drag of her cigarette.

“I wasn’t an important enough fish for any of that, I guess,” she says. “Still, I irked them enough.” She turns her head back to me. “Didn’t I, Sonya?”

As if I would know.

“They trailed me,” she says to the driver. “Called once a week. They made sure I didn’t get accepted into a single university I applied to.” She coughs, before continuing. “I didn’t want that for my daughter. The farther she was from me, the better off she would be.”

“How long has it been?” the driver asks after a long, smoky pause. Mama doesn’t answer.

“Eleven years.” My voice cuts in, hoarse from all the smoke filling the Volga.

“Eleven years!?” The driver whirls around to face Mama. The car swerves, throwing me against the side of the door. “For eleven years, you haven’t seen your little girl?”

“We saw each other.” Mama’s voice is suddenly flat, quiet. “When we could. Didn’t we, Sonya?”

She turns to the driver, and even in her profile there is no mistaking the savage sadness flashing in her eyes, her expression daring him to say another word.

At first I think it’s Mama’s stare that makes the driver look away. But then the car halts with a screech, and immediately I become aware of a low rumble spreading outside, making the windows jingle.

I see it in the front window of the car. A line of tanks, crossing the intersection. A bunch of boys, men, what do you call them? I am practically sitting in the front with them now, my head in between Mama and the driver, my knees almost hitting the ashtray bin where they both had put out their cigarettes. In puffy vests, with sharp haircuts, and guns by their sides, guys that could practically be my classmates are sitting atop death machines, as if on tractors.

Suddenly, my back is all sweaty and free of wings.

“It’s nothing, Sonya,” Mama soothes me. “Go back to your seat — don’t start trembling so. Nobody is shooting. There is no war.”

“I’m not—trembling,” I say, as I settle in once again. My back sticks to the seat and my cheeks are burning.

“It’s just the army in training,” the driver adds, though his voice is shaking a little.

Training for what? Anyway, I wasn’t trembling.

I push the image of the dusty machines out of my mind. They won’t be my bad omen.

The window grows foggy from my breath, as I look hard for it, so hard my eyes tear up — New Life. Tanks or not, I know it’s out there somewhere. Waiting for me past the streetlights with missing light bulbs, beyond the Producty shops, general food stores with empty shelves gleaming dully.

“Your school is across the street,” Mama says.

I strain my eyes against the thickening darkness. It’s hard to believe we are just an hour away from the bustling, noisy capital. A stray dog scampers into an alley.

The car jolts onto a dirt road by a concrete fence. I let my breath out in a jerky motion, thinking of Monday, the first day of school. The day I make my first appearance in New Life. I wonder if I’ll have the courage to tell my future classmates about the tanks I saw today. I wonder if I’ll be bold enough to even say hi to them without drowning in a wave of hot scarlet.

Privet. I’m Sonya Solovay. A new girl. A brand new Sonya.

I must be wearing an odd expression, because the driver’s eyes fix on me in the mirror again. I pull my shoulders down and raise my chin at him.

“Watch out for this one,” he says to Mama.

“Don’t you worry about her.” Mama laughs out in a tense burst. “My Sonya is nothing to worry about, nothing.” She throws her head back and smiles at me. Her arm extends backward, her fingers reach for me, her ever patient, always reliable little devochka — daughter. I squeeze her small soft fingers in my hand, just the way she expects it. But I don’t return her smile. The car slows down before a construction site that in the dark resembles the ghostly ruins of a castle. The man shakes his head, examining me still, with eyes small and thoughtful. I brace myself for the final offering of the man’s gruff wisdom.

“I know her type,” he says as he brings the car to a halt. “Too perfect. Too quiet. Demons live in the quiet pond, as they say. She’s going to let you have it, this one. You’ll see.”

Excerpted from Castle of Concrete. Used with the permission of the publisher and author. Copyright © 2019 Katia Raina.

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