This excerpt is from Benson Bobrick’s new book, a memoir of his life and work as a writer, to be published in October by Stillwater Books. Bobrick has written two books on Russia: a biography of Ivan the Terrible and a history of Siberia, both published by Russian Life books.
Russia’s broad history was in my blood. My mother had bravely crossed Siberia alone, at age 21, in 1929; and my father’s family had come from Smolensk. One forebear (so family legend had it) had been a “violinist to the Tsar”; and my first book, Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology & War, had included a chapter on the making of the Moscow subway in the 1930s, under Lazar M. Kaganovich and Nikita Khrushchev’s stern hand. Then, for my third book, in 1984 I decided to write a biography of Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first tsar. In the course of my research, I acquired a working knowledge of Russian and a broad understanding of Byzantine culture, the Russian Orthodox Church, the politics of the Baltic States, Polish history, sixteenth century diplomacy and commerce, and some of the lasting issues that set Russia against the West. My fascination with these subjects evidently made itself felt, for my biography — Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible, published in 1987 — was very well received.
Ivan’s reign, it seems to me, has relevance for anyone caring to understand the Russian people and their world. Some part of the Russian soul will always remain “Muscovite”; and as I explained in my Foreword, “to a degree most might find surprising, the Soviet state elaborated under Stalin was less a repudiation of the world of the tsars than a recrudescence of the realm Ivan ruled. Traces of old Muscovy continue to this day, and are broadly reflected in everything from popular customs to government organization and foreign affairs.”
Ivan’s rule had come to an end just as Russia’s conquest of northern Asia began. A book about Siberia—with its broad array of curious, besotted, and heroic characters; fantastic expeditions; “Wild East” sagas; tales of exile; and the awesome power of the land itself—seemed a natural sequel. I conceived the story in epic terms, secured a contract, and in the summer of 1989, embarked for Gorbachev’s Soviet Union to see for myself what northern Asia had become.
Before striking east to Siberia, I spent time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, then still Leningrad. As my plane circled Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, I was surprised at how much forest surrounded the city. Once I touched down, I was aware of being in a third world country — impoverished in all but its military might. On the drive to my hotel, I passed miles of dreary, Soviet-era standardized housing with their balconies converted into flimsy outside rooms.
In the middle of one thoroughfare, an abandoned, vandalized car was ablaze.
In my room at Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel, even elementary accessories, like shower curtains and toilet paper, were lacking and the bed was not quite made. An unfinished glass of juice stood on a desk. There was an old T.V. that worked on three or four channels, and a radio that went dead after an hour. The sterilizing unit for my contact lens case exploded when I plugged in the adaptor I had brought from the States.
Russia at the time was plagued by sudden, unexplained shortages of basic goods like detergent, and some of the supplies in Russian grocery stores were so meager as to be almost symbolic—two cuts of meat, four jars of jam, one fish. The day I arrived, even coffee was being rationed and I had to pay forty kopeks a cup above the indicated price. Though glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were taking hold, Gorbachev, to my surprise, was not yet admired. He was thought to be corrupt, and it was rumored that he had recently passed laws to curb alcohol abuse in order to profit, personally, from organized crime. That might seem absurd to us now, but not to those familiar then with the machinations of Kremlin power. Sugar, in fact, was scarce because bootleggers had reportedly begun to hoard it for their stills.
I would soon discover that the newspaper tear-sheets of Gorbachev’s speeches were also being used as toilet paper on the Trans-Siberian line.
In Moscow, I took in some of the sights—the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square and the changing of the guard at Lenin’s red granite Tomb; a few museums; and attended a big “Music Peace Festival” (guarded, notably, by skinheads). From Moscow, I went to Leningrad. All commercial flights at the time were in heavily guarded planes, and to prevent hijackings were surrounded by submachine gun-bearing troops. The pilots also wore side-arms and armed security personnel patrolled the aisle. At the front desk of the Hotel Leningrad, where I stayed, I picked up a promotional magazine on The U.S.S.R. Today. On the cover was a montage of colorful photos showing Gorbachev and Reagan sitting comfortably together in the Kremlin on a white divan; a Russian woman in her wedding dress; a church; a skier; children; a band. It touted the laudable goals of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet efforts at international cooperation and disarmament, and offered a “candid assessment” of the need for reforms. Some things were comically expressed. One item read: “Our electoral system remained unchanged for too long. Candidates were handpicked and then presented to the electorate at the rate of one candidate per vacancy. This resulted in a lack of public interest.”
Wherever I went, I encountered a strange mixture of expectation and decay. Hope abounded in reform, but the collapse of the old order had set the nation adrift. Even the security services seemed in disarray as their members moved sideways into parallel or analogous professions, like drug-dealing and prostitution, to thrive in newly-developing underworlds. Among all walks of life, there was a tilt toward crime. Many Russians had been introduced to the idea of free enterprise in its most mercenary form, while others could only find employment on its seedy fringe. One intelligent young couple I met in Moscow had university degrees in both French and physics, worked part-time for Intourist, the Soviet tourist agency, but failed to find regular work consistent with their skills. They were desperate for a decent life and had a new-born child. To survive, they enrolled for three months at “Interclub Moscow,” run by Casino Royale, where they were trained as croupiers. Eventually, they ended up on a casino boat (the “Carnivale,” as I recall, “to see the world”), destroyed their marriage, and abandoned their infant daughter to foster care in Tver.
In my Russian travels, I ventured beyond the major cities when I could, crossed Siberia twice, and traveled down into Central Asia to Tashkent and Samarkand. In Uzbekistan, the people smiled broadly through their creased, weather-beaten faces, but seemed a captive folk, patient, enduring, detached, self-contained. Though Soviet-style banners everywhere exhorted the virtues of work and Party with monuments to Lenin, Kalinin, and other such icons of the State, they seemed like relics of the past. As I settled into my room in Tashkent, Arabic music came over the terrace, followed by silence; then a muezzin called the faithful to prayer.
One day on the platform of the main Moscow Station (from which the Trans-Siberian embarked), I noticed a gypsy with a knapsack on her back. She set it down, untied it, and with a kind of somersault, a child tumbled out. It went about the platform begging; then, when the train was about to board, tumbled back in. None of this was legal and I stared. She saw that I remarked it all closely, and came up to me and cursed me for three minutes straight. I have no idea what she said, nor would I care to. But I was mortified.
The Trans-Siberian was then (and may be still) like a great traveling slumber party, with people lounging about all day in their jump suits or pajamas, talking, drinking, and playing cards. My own coupé, which I gaily decorated with Russian posters, was a magnet for entertainment, and I had many visitors interested in what I could tell them about life in the States. My own curiosity about their lives was just as keen. Much of the talk was about popular American culture and icons like Marilyn Monroe, but now and then something more somber came up. From one Ukrainian family I learned that the average life expectancy of a Ukrainian miner was 39. The man who told me this was a miner, with two young children by his side. I had given one of them my camera case to play with; the wife took it all in with a sad smile.
The train proceeded at a great rate, and to feel the force of it, I slept at night on the bottom bunk, close to the wheels as they churned across the land. For most of the way, I had a compartment to myself, but one night I was awakened by a man who came clattering in with bags of vodka bottles he had smuggled onto the train. He was hugely apologetic, spoke in bursts, and soon explained that he had just been stabbed in the leg. As he clutched his calf, blood oozed between the fingers of his hand. I soon learned that he was an Iranian, not Russian, by birth (though he considered himself a Russian national); dealt in bootleg liquor; thought America must be a great place; and was eager to bind up his wound before the next stop. I offered him one of my T-shirts to tear into strips, but he was curiously equipped with his own bandages and salves.
I surmised he had been in such trouble before.
When the time came, he clattered off into the night…
Adapted excerpt from Benson Bobrick, Returning from Afar: A Memoir (Stillwater Books, Oct. 2019.
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