© Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos
© Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos

In the Net of Composer N.

A tale of collaboration

Maxim D. Shrayer
May 24, 2023
© Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos
© Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos

In the winter of 1978, for the last time, I tasted of the forbidden fruit that Soviet golden youth consumed with habitual indifference. We were spending the winter holiday at Maleyevka, the Writers’ Home of Creativity outside Moscow. My parents had entered the path of emigration. My mom had already said goodbye to her beloved job as a professor of business English and interpreter. My father, too, had to bid adieu to the Research Institute of Microbiology, where he had worked since the mid-1960s. My parents had placed their Soviet careers, quite successful for Jews who weren’t party members, on the execution block, except that instead of the permission to leave, refusenikdom awaited us. For my father, that winter vacation at Maleyevka was also a farewell to his life as a Soviet writer. His official punishment just for the “attempt at exodus” (my father’s words) would not only be the banishment from academic life, but also the expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers, the derailment of three books, and public ostracism. But back then, as a 12-year-old, I couldn’t imagine that my parents ever made mistakes. Nor could we imagine that a year later the Soviet troops would invade Afghanistan as the rule of corpses propelled the USSR into its own unravelling. How could we possibly foresee that I would celebrate my bar mitzvah not in the Holy Land but in Moscow shrouded with summertime poplar snow? In a certain causal sense, the events I describe below had less to do with the political and personal backdrop of my teenage years, and yet without this backdrop I wouldn’t have become the witness and observer typing these lines on a chilly afternoon on May 9, the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany.

The daily routine at the Writers’ Home of Creativity, situated at the former estate of the publisher Vukol Lavrov, looked like this: an abundant breakfast heavy on pastries and farmer’s cheese; creative time; strolls around the nearby wintry forests and fields; lunch with some alcohol; rest, billiards, and supper with abundant drinking that sometimes continued into the late hours. Writers’ spouses and writers’ scions spent their entire days in various social amusements. Two groups could be distinguished among the “young generation”: boys and girls my age, still innocent, but already beginning to don the air of sophistication, and the true golden youth, university students who acted as though the privileges they enjoyed were hereditary, endless, and limitless. Most outrageously behaved was the son of the poet Rimma Kazakova. This young man, who would subsequently become known for his psychedelic fiction, wandered the halls of the old manor house looking stoned, and tried to glue himself to every writer’s teenage daughter or granddaughter.

Due to a strange concurrence of circumstances, the core of the group of kids that I was running with during that winter holiday was composed of children but rather of grandchildren of Soviet writers. Our intellectual leader was a boy by the name of Sasha Taratuta, whose Paris-born elderly grandmother, critic and memoirist, was best known for her work on Ethel Lilian Voynich, author of The Gadfly, a late Victorian novel about a radicalized English Catholic in Risorgimento-era Italy, a book which paradoxically enjoyed cult status in Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China. On the day we met, Sasha took me aside and asked, his bright voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper:

“Have you heard of Composer N.?”

“No, I haven’t,” I answered, sincerely.

“What’s wrong with you? My grandmother told me all about him. An aristocrat. Emigrated in 1918. Went to Cambridge. Lived in America. Died in Switzerland. A genius!”

Another memorable character in our midst was Mitya Sidorov, swarthy, velvet-eyed, his Ashkenazi origins barely concealed by his father’s simple Russian last name. Grandson of Semyon Indursky, editor of Evening Moscow, Mitya assigned himself for the role of a jejune Don Juan. But I took the greatest liking to Valyusha Tolstosumova, a classic Moscow young lady with a theatrical voice, amethyst eyes red-streaked from exultation or sorrow, and eyelashes long and gorgeous like wondrous moths pressed to the night sky of Crimea. I liked her very much and did not know what to do about it.

When we first met, I asked Valyusha: “Who’s the writer in your family?”

Valyusha pursed the corners of her lips and replied: “My grandmother.”

“And what exactly did she write?” I continued with the interrogation.

“She apprehended Hitler’s teeth,” Valyusha so replied in the voice that suggested that I had inadvertently raised my hand at something sacred.

At the time, in part under the influence of Odessan thieves’ songs, but also in anticipation of parting with all the lies and gibberish of our Brezhnevite youth, I deliberately put on the persona of a rough street kid, atypical of the young boys from the families of the intelligentsia.

“Yeah, right, Hitler’s teeth. Better yet say she found Martin Bormann’s liver in Brazil,” I mocked Valyusha Tolstosumova’s words.

The grandson of the leading Soviet expert in The Gadfly gave me a disapproving look.

“You might consider expressing yourself more tactfully,” he said.

Had the regular kids with whom I played soccer and hockey in the back yard of our Moscow apartment building heard Sasha Taratuta’s words, they would have sentenced him to eternal damnation.

Valyusha shuddered, as if from a gust of cold wind, but said nothing.

In the meantime, the winter break rolled down the icy river banks toward the New Year. Sometimes after breakfast, our little group would go cross-country skiing or sledding, although we preferred indoor games. Those included sitting in the deep divans of the main building’s spacious living room or playing at billiards when the tables weren’t occupied by the proud makers of Soviet literature. In the evening we amused ourselves with more or less the same activities as did the regular Soviet kids our age—cards, spin the bottle (its version known in Soviet-speak as “kiss-meow”). Sometimes, if we could find a vacant private space in a remote building, strip poker would become the game of choice.

Besides the girls and boys from literary families, a gang of local village kids would periodically descend upon the halls of Maleyevka. They were, for the most part, children of the dining hall servers, maids, and cleaning ladies employed to wait on the writers and their families. It was considered a form of higher equalitarianism (or was it reverse snobbism?) not to kick these guttersnipes out of the building, and so there were times when the village kids and our clean-cut bunch would come together. I must admit that the writers’ descendants were a little afraid of the “villagers,” whereas the vacationing writers, even those of peasant stock, regarded them as a necessary evil. My father, who had descended from generations of Litvak rabbis and generations of Podolian millers—and had spent three wartime years in a remote village in the Urals—loved the peasant children with all his heart and raised me in the spirit of respect for the ordinary working people. I mention this became my upbringing would play a part in the early part of this account.

A boisterous kid with gaps between his front teeth was the boss of the gang of villagers. His name was Grigory, but he went by “Grishutka.” He had very pale blue eyes, wheaten curls, and a fearless grin. In his teeth Grishutka always held a match, which now and then he would roll out on the top of his tongue. The crest of a wave thus plays with a log ripped away from a raft. Having seen many authors and authors’ family members over the 13 years of his life, Grishutka considered himself a connoisseur of literature and took a live interest in the origins of the writers’ children and grandchildren. When we first met, he was conducting an interrogation of the boys and girls who were my daily companions during that winter vacation. He had definitely heard of The Gadfly, but not about the elderly lady who had had tea with the British author of the novel. He had known the grandmother of Valyusha Tolstosumova, the one who had apprehended Hitler’s teeth, from early childhood, and seemed to have a soft spot for Valyusha.

“And who’s your writer?” Grishutka asked me.

“My dad,” I replied. “What’s it to you?”

“I keep scores,” Grishutka chuckled. “Come on, give me the name.”

“Petrov,” I answered. Back in the late 1950s, after the suggestion of the famous poet Boris Slutsky, my father had taken the pen name “David Petrov,” based on the Russified first name of his father—my grandfather—Petr (Peysakh) Shrayer. After we became refuseniks and he was banished, my father revived our family name and started signing his works “David Shrayer-Petrov.”

“Ah, Petrov,” Grishutka nodded with approval. “I know the name.” (Petrov, roughly “Mr. Stone,” belongs to the most common Russian last names.)

On this basis we became temporary pals.

A couple of times the villagers and the writers’ kids even organized joint pranks—turned on the fire extinguisher during a movie screening or hid all the billiard balls in a big trash can—but the divide between us remained huge. The arrival of a new character threw this divide into stark relief. The new arrival was a myopic, stooped teenage boy with pouty lips and an aristocratic nose. Sounds of decadence and cadences of talent were intertwined in his demeanor. He didn’t exactly enter our circle yet elected to stay on the fringes and silently witness our games and mischiefs. When I reconstruct the sequence of events that occurred during my last vacation as a Soviet writer’s heir, I cannot but recognize a causal link between the appearance of this new character with the subsequent public expulsion of the village urchins. This is what I think had happened.

In the hollow after-lunch hour, six or seven of us, writers’ children and grandchildren, were hanging out in the billiards room. Suddenly, from some place in the underbelly of the main building, a flock of village boys rolled out.

“Well, intelligentsia, wanna shoot some pool?” Grishutka addressed us.

The grandson of the editor of Evening Moscow reached out for a pool cue but then Grishutka noticed the new boy and changed his mind.

“Hey new kid, what’s your name?” Grishutka accosted him.

The “new kid,” who was sitting on the edge of a leather divan, notebook in hand, barely acknowledged Grishutka and spoke in a very soft voice: “Andryusha.”

“Well, sissy, who’s your writer?”

“My grandfather,” Andryusha said, still softly.

“And who is your grandfather?” Grishutka wouldn’t let go.

The village kids made a circle around us, writers’ heirs.

“He is a Formalist. Member of the academy,” Andryusha replied, contempt in his voice.

“Formalist? What’s that? Some sort of a playwright?” Grishutka asked, turning the match over on his tongue.

“No, that’s a school of literary criticism.”

“Wow, that’s deep,” Grishutka commented. Grinning, he turned to the other village kids. “Do you have a last name, literary critic?” he asked.

“Collaborants,” Andryusha replied, his voice devoid of hope.

“Labo’rats?” Grishutka chortled, very pleased with himself. The other village boys joined in. “What are you? Kebab? Armo?”

Andryusha Collaborants lowered his gaze and said nothing in return. I noticed that Valyusha Tolstosumova blushed, her eyes tearing up. The other writers’ kids pretended that they didn’t hear the slurs.

“Grishutka, leave him alone,” I said.

“Petrov, what’s it to you?” Grishutka turned his face to me and spread his shoulders, as though getting ready for a fight. “You aren’t his relative, are you?”

“I could be if I wanted to,” I replied. “Now get lost, Grishutka, before I put your face where your zhopa is.”

We both hit each other simultaneously. I struck him on his nose, just as my father, a former boxer, had instructed me. Grishutka hit me on the upper lip. We latched onto each other and rolled down the carpet, its thick pelt imprinted with the footsteps of the classics of socialist realism. When they finally pulled us apart, Grishutka had a bloody nose, I—a bloody lip.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Grishutka ordered his gang. “Watch out, Petrov,” he barked at me, and they sped out.

Valyusha Tolstosumova ran to the washroom and brought a page of the Literary Gazette, which she had skillfully folded into a strip and run under cold water, to make a compress.

“Press it to your lip and hold,” she said.

In the evening, my lip bruised and swollen, I told my parents of what had transpired.

“His grandfather was a Formalist? Who could this be? Eikhenbaum? No. Tynyanov? No. And most definitely not Shklovsky,” said my father.

Viktor Shklovsky, the half-Jewish, quarter-German, and quarter-Latvian survivor of the great early Soviet experiment in the arts had twice been my father’s recommender for the Union of Writers.

“Papa, this Andryusha kid has his father’s last name. And the famous grandfather is on the mother’s side.”

“What kind of an unusual last name is it?” asked my mother, who was trained as a philologist. “Coll-ab-or-rants?”

My father strictly forbade me to complain. “You fight, you make up. Not a big deal,” he said. “We don’t have snitches in our family.”

Following the conflict with Grishutka, the village kids stopped showing up at the House of Creativity. The grandson of the country’s leading interpreter of The Gadfly told us that he knows “for certain” that the head administrator of Maleyevka “got a call” from Moscow.

Andryusha stopped showing his face in the divan room and billiards room, and Valyusha had also dropped out of our daily activities.

After New Year’s my parents and I returned to Moscow, and I never again visited Maleyevka or socialized with the scions of Soviet writers.

We were refuseniks for eight and a half years and only emigrated in early June 1987. In the spring of 1993, a U.S. passport warming my heart, I was finally able to go back to Russia. After that time—and until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—I had been going there almost every year. Since graduate school, one of the main objects of my research was Composer N., the great Russian and American modernist and butterfly expert, he of whom I had first heard as a 12-year-old at the writers’ resort outside Moscow.

In the summer of 1998 I found myself in the ancestral mansion of Composer N. on Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg, where a museum had opened not long before that. It’s just a couple of blocks from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the city’s most beautiful spots. The museum only occupied the first floor of the house where the future composer had spent his pre-revolutionary childhood. The second and third floors were now being used by a music school and a weekly newspaper. The first director of the Museum of Composer N. was a stylish gentleman who earned himself the moniker “Director Snark.” He sported a floral tie given to him by the only son of Composer N., an opera singer who lived in Milan. Drop by drop, small bit by small bit, Director Snark put together the museum’s collection—first editions and some manuscripts, trays with pinned butterflies, the composer’s tweed coat, pince-nez and amber cigarette holder, family photos, the gramophone that once belonged to N.’s mother. Director Snark also founded the international summer festivals, which happened at the peak of white nights. In the late 1990s, when hope of Russia’s democratic future still hung in the air, the summer festivals were attended not only by the students, performers, and interpreters of Composer N., but also by his émigré relatives, among whom stood out one mellifluous baron with a hyphenated German name, perfectly straight back and a residence in a toy principality tucked away on the border of Austria and Switzerland.

After Director Snark came a young woman with an Edgar Allan Poe-indebted last name who spoke a rich, beautiful, slightly old-fashioned Russian. She wanted very much for the House of Composer N. to become a center of free and independent culture—a tall order for Russia. But she ended up moving to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and her position went to another museum director, of whom I know precious little. By now we’ve nearly restored the timeframe leading up to the central events of this story.

In the early 2000s the museum became the object of attempted hostile takeovers. In the end, the takeovers did not succeed, although they all but destroyed the museum’s well-being and liquidity. Culturologists campaigned to turn the House of Composer N. into a salon for St. Petersburg intelligentsia. It was rumored that a powerful oligarch sought to expel the newspaper, the music school, and the museum all at once so as to turn the granite-laid mansion into a private residence. I also heard that somewhere in the upper echelons of the Russian government a fight over the museum’s status was unfolding: municipal, regional or national. All sorts of rumors swirled around the museum, and I would periodically learn them from St. Petersburg colleagues and acquaintances while both believing and refusing to believe these accounts.

And then, in the early spring of 2003, I got a Skype call from Venya Belotserkovsky. A notable St. Petersburg personality, Venya was a roving encyclopedia of all things, a survivor of the siege, a hero of Saigon (not the Vietnamese city but the legendary Leningrad café where the literati used to hang out), and the first Russian biographer of Composer N. Venya had some ancient version of Skype on his prehistoric computer, and one could only talk by taking turns, but not simultaneously.

“I have two grand pieces of news,” Venya screamed. “Which one do you want first?”

“Venya, how about the one that will take less time to explain,” I replied.

“You Americans, always in a rush ... Fine, listen to this. The museum is about to become part of St. Petersburg University—especially fortunate since our beloved composer had attended lectures there prior to fleeing Russia. Do you get it?”

“Not completely,” I admitted.

“All of you become thick in your America,” Venya said.

“It’s the calories,” I acknowledged. “So what does all this mean for the museum?”

“This all means that the museum is now under the wing of the nation’s second-best university. And the university president is an educated and cultured person. He adores Composer N. Capeesh?”

“Venya, I have little faith in cultured state officials. But if you say so, I’m glad.”

“That’s not all of it. You know who the new director is?”

“Of course I don’t!”

“Our new director, Valyusha Tolstosumova, wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Composer N. She’s wonderful, smart. And she’s all ours. Her grandmaman—your father surely must have known her—is the one who apprehended Hitler’s body in 1945. Imagine, what family our Valyusha comes from!”

Venya finished his tirade.

“Venya, I believe I met her as a kid. Not the grandmother but Valyusha herself.”

“Even better. You’ll be in the core of our museum’s friends and benefactors,” Venya concluded. “We’re just starting to plan the summer festival. We need you.”

Was it destiny that arranged for a reunion with the writers’ granddaughters and grandsons with whom I had congregated in the winter of 1978?

Thus I became a member of the organizing committee of the International Festival of Composer N. And in the summer of 2003 I came to the museum on Bolshaya Morskaya and saw Valyusha again—25 years hence.

On that Thursday morning during the first week of July, I walked on Malaya Morskaya Street toward St. Isaac’s Square, pressed my hand to the memorial plaque on the wall of the hotel where poet Esenin either took his life or was murdered by Russia’s secret police in 1925, and thence, across the landscaped garden, ran toward the corner of Bolshaya Morskaya. From there it’s just a birdcherry pit’s throw to the museum. The participants and performers were starting to arrive for the opening of the festival. I entered and stopped at the threshold of the reception hall with the familiar, handsome monograms on the ornate ceiling. I saw a slender woman clad in a dress made of something musliny and airy, suede pumps on her feet. Of the original 13-year-old Valyusha, whom I remembered from Maleyevka in 1978, only long mothlike eyelashes had survived. That and her particular voice of remarkable purity and clarity.

In the evening, following the opening day of the festival program, Valyusha and I circled the city as it slowly tried on the last, luminous cloaks of white nights. We ended up eating at a little place called Idiot—named after Dostoevsky’s novel.

“Valyusha, do tell,” I went on prying. “You, a Muscovite. Living in Petersburg?”

“Long story, really. I married way early. He was from Leningrad. And then … then Composer N. You know how it is. A love. Then graduate school, research. And so I stayed here. Ten years now. Gradually I got used to it, even attached to this city. But I miss Moscow all the time.”

“My mom also missed Moscow,” I said. “And so Mom and Dad went back after two years here. That’s how I was born.” And then, as if casually, I asked: “And your husband, what’s his story?”

“Former husband. We parted. Five years it’s been. He’s living in Tel Aviv.”

“A familiar story,” I said, pulling on my dark beer with a caraway nose. “Did you know that nearly half of that Maleyevka bunch of writers’ kids have emigrated. I mainly know this from Facebook. Some are living in New York, others in Berlin, others yet in London …”

Valyusha didn’t say anything. A bluish haze descended on the city which Composer N. never could forget even after 60 years without.

“You know what, Valyusha,” I suddenly blurted out. “If I hadn’t been married—happily married—I would’ve hit on you.”

Valyusha lowered her head just so, and a golden braid of her hair slid down her cheek and fell into her glass of Georgian white wine.

“I thought you liked different girls. Skis. Tennis. Travel …,” said Valyusha all the while kneading her linen napkin.

“Whereas I thought you liked nerdy, high-strung boys. Of the sort that can’t ski but have already read Coriolanus …”

Ten years had gone by since my reunion with Valyusha. Ever summer I would travel to Russia and return to the house of Composer N. for the summer festivals. A remarkable group of younger colleagues worked there alongside Valyusha. These Russian boys and girls, having come of age in the early post-Soviet years, were quite different from my generation, formed and warped during Brezhnevian years. These young people had different brains, different sensibilities. With their enthusiasm, Valyusha had managed to turn the House of Composer N. into a first-rate museum with a fine library of print editions, an archive of its own, and a collection of personal artifacts that had belonged to Composer N. and his family members.

Valyusha and I enjoyed the kind of collegial commerce that sometimes connects people who once knew each other as children. She would trust me with delicate tasks—not just the oversight of the festival program but personal matters, such as convincing a brilliant but intolerable Texan academic to participate or else to mediate in the conflict of two veterans of our festivals, opera historian M. and musicologist W. One thing Valyusha and I didn’t delve into was personal life. She knew from Facebook that my wife had become a full professor of medicine and our daughters had started middle school; I knew that her son from the first marriage had entered university. But of marriage and matrimony we spoke not. It just happened this way.

In November of 2013 I flew to Moscow to speak at a book fair. I was doing an event for a new book, a double biography of two great émigré writers. And I had also been invited to participate in the launch of a special literary issue of the Moscow magazine Snob, to which I had contributed a Russian version of my short story “A Sunday Walk to the Arboretum.”

In those days the book fair, known as Non/fiction, was held at the Krymsky Val exhibition hall. At the pre-sunset hour I walked from Culture Park metro station in order to photograph the famous bridge, under which the innamorati kiss in the opening shots of The Cranes Are Flying. The same spot appears later in the film, already after Aleksey Batalov’s character has been sent to the war front to fight the German invaders; Aleksey Shvorin’s character waits for the young Tatyana Samoilova, who plays Veronika and would later play Anna Karenina.

I photographed the Krymsky Bridge and walked to the exhibition hall. I received my badge and located the auditorium assigned for the Snob reading. Right next to it there was a cafeteria and a lounge, and right there in line to get my coffee and eclair I ran into Valyusha Tolstosumova. She was wearing a zigzagy Missoni dress and high-heel shoes of dark blue suede. Only her deliberately messy hair and the moths of her eyelashes were the same.

“Valyusha, are you reading?” I blurted out, dropping my smartphone onto the counter. “Following in your grandmother’s steps?”

“Of course not,” Valyusha replied as we brush-kissed on the cheek. “Just here to listen. And in the evening I’m coming to your book event.”

Valyusha turned in the direction of divans and low tables piled up with paper plates and cups, and waved to somebody.”

“Do you remember Andryusha?” she asked in her bell jar voice.

This sometimes happens in a dream: From a maelstrom of the past a dead body floats up, a dead body or a person you haven’t seen in over half a lifetime, and pulls up a chain of needless memories.

“Of course I remember,” I replied while simultaneously replaying in my head the episode with Grishutka, the fight, and the banishment of village kids from the Writers’ House of Creativity at Maleyevka.

Together we approached the low coffee table where Andryusha Collaborants was sitting. Valyusha introduced—or rather, reintroduced—us. She looked at Andryusha adoringly. He and I exchanged a few noncommittal phrases—about the years “flying posthaste,” the magazine that feels “like a good American quarterly,” and also about life “in both capitals.”

A little later, during the reading, when Andryusha came up to the microphone, I managed to catch a good look of him. Years hadn’t done much to the 12-year-old grandson of the famous Formalist scholar and member of the Soviet Academy, the youth who used to sit with a slender notebook in hand, observing the other kids’ fun and games. The thin-legged boyish man who stood at the microphone was dressed in an elegantly tailored, checkered coat and narrow blue jeans. A birthmark below his left cheekbone, a Levantine nose and large pouted lips stood out on his pale waxen face. No wonder the kids at Maleyevka used to call him “platypus.” The adult Andryusha had long, oily hair. Thick lenses of his small rimless glasses distorted the shape of his eyes. The eyes dashes to and fro, forming a wondrous stroboscopic pattern. For some reason I also remembered the thin mother-of-pearl fingers of Andryusha Collaborants, the sharp cleft of his chin, and the simultaneous expression of languor and laceration, which punctuated the lines of prose he delivered.

Written in first person and chock-full of allusions to sadomasochism and sexual domination, the excerpt from his new novel described discord between two Russian lovers come to London for two weeks. The hero and heroine spend most of the day strolling through the autumnal Regents Park until they find themselves in Camden Town. The hero, visibly drawn from his creator, constantly speaks about missing Russia. The heroine outwardly resembles Valyusha, except the author has taken away her mild demeanor and natural talent for self-sacrifice, having turned her into a wretched creature that teases and torments the hero. The entire excerpt communicates a presentiment of breaking up, except it’s not the vile heroine, but the suffering hero, who does the breaking up. And he doesn’t just break up, but literally cheats on her with a streetwalker from a small country in the Balkans.

I left the reading in low spirits. How was it possible that Valyusha, the wonderful, decent, honest Valyusha had joined her life with such a creep? This is what I was thinking as I walked down Ostozhenka Street in the direction of the Pushkin Museum of Art and the monument to the anarchist Prince Kropotkin.

Later, after I got back home to Boston, I made inquiries and found out a few things. To wit: Valyusha Tolstosumova was the third wife of Andryusha Collaborants. That is, no longer Andryusha but professor Andrey Yurievich Collaborants, author of many novels and stories but also various publications on modern culture, in which he managed to touch on topics not quite accepted in Russia—now queerness in music and literature, now totalitarian art. And yet he also stuck to the party line and zealously supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of the breakaway Donbass region. Having come across a long interview on YouTube, I was struck by the amplitude of his ramblingly articulate comments, ranging from his grandfather and other Russian Formalists to the destiny of Sergey Prokofiev, but not failing to mention how St. Petersburg was “fortunate to have such a high benefactor in the Kremlin …”

Three more years slid by. The museum at Bolshaya Morskaya Street was slowly dying. Already in the summer of 2017 the signs of an imminent crisis were becoming evident. Suddenly there were fewer foreign visitors and participants, as though they sensed the alarm and refused to attend. The reception hall of the House of Composer N. now teemed with bureaucrats from a newly instituted university office with a sinister name, and these men and women had first names and patronymics taken from the smelly trunks of Soviet history: Vladlen Nikitich (from Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev), Octyabrina Iosifovna (from October Revolution and Iosif Stalin) and so forth. Where did these petty monsters come from? They would show up at the opening events of the festival, sit in the back row, jot something down in their notebooks, then noisily get up and leave in the middle of a presentation. Valyusha had also changed, becoming inwardly withdrawn. She would speak cursively about the affairs of the museum, waving off queries. Many years of living in the U.S. had taught me not to pester people with personal questions, respecting the distance the others choose for their own comfort. I thought: If she doesn’t want to engage, this means she is just unable to do it, physically or emotionally. And I accepted the new terms.

Was I even surprised when, in late December 2018, I got a Skype call from Venya Belotserkovsky. He had aged but hadn’t lost his youthful zeal.

“Things are bad, good pal. There’s a new president at the university.”

“Did they get rid of the cultured one?” I couldn’t help asking.

“No time to make jokes,” Venya said scornfully. “Our museum’s in jeopardy.”

“Venya, how can I help?”

“I don’t know yet. The museum is being audited. They have turned everything upside down. Valyusha’s going to have a nervous breakdown. We need to save her, do you understand?”

Reluctantly, I did some research of my own. The new university president, known for his choleric temperament and dictatorial style, was a Putin appointee and intended to run the university in the style of a military settlement. He was surrounding himself with a retinue of lackeys, of whom he demanded an unconditional execution of his will. It didn’t exactly surprise me that Andryusha Collaborants was appointed the new chair of cultural studies. Russia’s increasingly repressive regime also needed such scions of famous intellectuals, such refined, openly vulnerable marionettes, writers of the slightly perverse but politically loyalist fictions. Why? In order to create the illusion of a free culture. But how is any of this compatible with Valyusha? She, too, I had no doubt of it, could see through it. How then?

Winter sooty clouds had gathered over the House of Composer N. In the spring of 2019, one by one, the younger museum workers left—the idealistic Russian boys and girls who had given their beloved museum 10 years of their lives. They were now in their early 30s, not yet hopeless cynics, but no longer buoyant with hope for Russia’s future. First Margarita Bulganinova, then Seryozha Danilov. Their replacements, sent to the House of Composer N. from the university office of surveillance and control, were foppish young men in tight gray suits and young ladies with braided hair and very Russian names. Valyusha Tolstosumova was now all alone …

At the end of April 2019 Valyusha called me on my cell number. This was highly irregular.

“Valyusha, you? Please hold on a sec, I have office hours, a student’s just leaving …”

Having seen my advisee out the door, I took a gulp of cold tea with lemon and pressed the receiver to my temple.

“Valyusha, is everything OK?”

“I’m sorry to call like that …”

I could hear she was choking on words.

“What, Valyusha, just say it!”

“They fired me.”

“How? Those reptiles.”

“Andrey has been appointed the new museum director.”

“Which Andrey?” I asked, unable to accept the obvious.

“My Andrey. I mean he’s no longer mine. I left him. I just can’t take it any more …”

“Valyusha, so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

“There’s nothing to say. Just please don’t judge me, that’s all I ask.”

From various sources, I’d pieced together the unraveling at the former House of Composer N. Andryusha Collaborants had initially developed a frenzied schedule of activities. Most of the museum’s permanent display was removed, crated, and stored in a remote depository. The museum became a venue for various trendy events, and the new director populated his Noah’s Ark of culture not only with writers known for their criticism of the regime, and not just commercially successful, venal littérateurs, but also the so called “patriots”—Ahlabustin, Prilepin. To the May Artfest, Collaborants even invited A. Prokhanov, leader of the so-called Red-Browns and of the “Russian March.” There was nothing surprising in the fact that various dubious characters were eager to perform at the former House of Composer N. It’s harder to explain why decent people with reputations agreed to accept Collaborants’ invitations. The public in St. Petersburg split into those who boycotted the museum and those who refused to do so. In some sense the whole fight may have seemed like a naval battle in a pitcher of water. And yet those of us who had long been involved with the museum and had been supporters of Valyusha Tolstosumova couldn’t bring ourselves to do business with the new director of the museum.

It was decided—for the first time since the founding of the museum—to move the summer festival to a different venue. It had been a difficult decision. Luckily, the Academy Institute of Russian Culture agreed to shelter our festival in its historic auditorium under a gilded dome. This building on University Embankment, subject of the famous elegy by Aleksandr Blok, was perfectly suitable for what we now called the Composer N. International Festival. How odd that we hadn’t thought of it previously. The committee members sighed with relief. A two-day program had already been put together, evening public events, concerts and panels had been assembled when, just a week prior to the opening, our hosts at the Institute of Russian Culture hinted that it would probably be a good idea to invite professor Collaborants to say a few words at the opening ceremony. He was, after all, the director of the only house-museum of the great Composer N., and it would be unseemly to snub him. The majority of the core members of the organizing committee were in favor of avoiding a scandal. Only Venya Belotserkovsky was furious and kept sending us collective, wrathful emails about conformism and the “price of complacency.” Venya was against it, the others—for it. And Valyusha Tolstosumova said nothing. Reluctantly we agreed to invite Andryusha Collaborants. Six short days and six long white nights remained before the opening of the festival.

I’m deliberately embroidering the background with so many details so as to emphasize that none of us, festival organizers, had any inkling that something unimaginable would happen at the opening. Now picture a July morning, the packed auditorium with wall portraits of Russian enlighteners and Pushkin’s bronze bust. Feel the wet wind from the Neva pouring in through the open tops of the tall windows. The director of the Institute of Russian Culture opened the festival, then gave the floor to a lovely ancient lady who had authored biographies of many Russian composers, Scriabin and Stravinsky among them. Finally, Andryusha Collaborants made his way to the podium. He unfolded a sheet with his prepared remarks, glanced over it, and started to speak. At first his lips trembled, but then the little Satan of eloquence sprung up and Andryusha spoke fluidly and fluently. His speech was propped up by the same rhetorical device as most of his fictions: People are weak, life is turbulent, authorities are merciful. In a trained fashion, Andryusha circled the auditorium with his right hand and delivered this polished sentence:
“We’re all butterflies in his splendid collection.”

At this point the fearless Venya Belotserkovsky got up.

“No, Collaborants, you are not a butterfly,” Venya yelled. “You’re a vermin.”

For a moment Andryusha turned into the preteen snitch who had refused to go along with our pranks. But then he must have remembered his age and status and protested in his bleaty voice:

“But how dare you? I shall submit a formal complaint!”

And then chords of some divine music wafted in. The domed ceiling of the auditorium was either opened or pulled apart, and a hand clasping an immense white butterfly net appeared across a glaring sky. The net was lowered over Andryusha Collaborants. Stealthily, the right hand of Composer N., its monogrammed cuff link furiously sparkling, sliced the air with the bottom of the net, cutting off its victim’s escape. Andryusha was fluttering and flapping in the cone of the net, shrieking with endless fear, but it was too late. The hand with the net bent at the elbow and raised itself to the open vault of the auditorium. The whole thing was so mercilessly beautiful that all of those present got up from their seats, turned up their heads, and followed the trajectory of the net carrying away its human booty. It almost appeared that it wasn’t the toy museum director in the net of Composer N. but the disappearing tail of a northern comet.

Only Valyusha Tolstosumova dashed to the microphone and screamed in some anti-terrestrial voice: “I beg of you, please stop. Take pity on him …”

It was then I understood that despite his betrayal, Valyusha still loved her Collaborants.

The domed ceiling closed. Shaking their stupor, people shuffled their feet and spoke with relief.

This story has three epilogues, the desired, the disposed, and the destined.

Institutional justice, as is well known, triumphs very rarely, and especially so in Russia. In the desired epilogue the tyrannical university president got transferred from St. Petersburg to assume a ministerial post in Moscow. Valyusha Tolstosumova was restored to her position, and the dedicated associates followed her back to the House of Composer N.

But alas, this hasn’t happened (yet), and a new acting director of the former House of Composer N. has been appointed. An employee of the same university office of surveillance and control, she bears the name Elizaveta Vilorievna Podmyshkina. And instead of salvation through art, you and I must contend with the brutal reality of life. But not all is lost.

At the beginning of December of the last pre-COVID autumn, I drove from Chestnut Hill across the river to meet a colleague for lunch in Cambridge. After lunch at an old burger place in Harvard Square I decided to walk to the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This was on a sleety day when fall and winter fight out their last battles. In the early afternoon the museum was empty save for a retiree couple and a homeless lepidopterologist wearing a semblance of a Russian winter hat. I stopped in front of a massive wall cabinet containing parts of the collection of the butterflies described and classified by Composer N. Looking over my left shoulder, I randomly pulled out first one tray with butterflies, then another. On the fifth or sixth try I removed a glass-covered tray with the very item I was hoping to find yet didn’t quite believe I would.

There, in the middle of the tray, next to a specimen of the Karner blue that Composer N. had measured and studied up and down and across, from proboscis to abdomen and from the apex of the forewing to antennae, a little bespectacled man was pinned down to the bottom of the tray. He rested there, like a bather on the surface of a frothy sea, atop a moiré butterfly, she a double-winged American beauty with a stamp of eternity on her ashen wings.

This story is excerpted from the literary memoir “Immigrant Baggage: Morticians, Purloined Diaries, and Other Theatrics of Exile,” by Maxim D. Shrayer.

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, is forthcoming.