What was I hoping for, what was I expecting, what portent future life did I envision when I reacted with only a momentary sigh, with only a forlorn recollection to the fleeting phantom of my first love that passed before me? —Ivan Turgenev
Blood vessels of Russian classical literature saturate this story the way capillaries do the vermillion border of human lips. And yet the American in me is having trouble with the traditional structure: The prologue juts out like the Habsburg jaw, the middle of the story bulges like a hernia, and the finale is missing entirely. Having resigned myself to the idea that life’s raw material dictates the rules of storytelling, I have decided to offer the account of these events exactly as they presented themselves. I have only disguised the names of a few participants.
It all started in Moscow in late autumn of 1985—the hardest year in our family’s post-World War II history. My parents and I had been living as Jewish refuseniks since 1979. But In November 1985 the Soviet secret police set in motion a new round of my father’s persecution. An ostracized writer and medical scientist, he was being accused of anti-Soviet activities, of spreading what the authorities called “Zionist” literature. Law enforcement officers delivered a summons from the office of the Moscow city attorney (“prosecutor,” in Soviet-speak) to our doorsteps. My father went into hiding, but the terrible stress caused a heart attack and hospitalization at Moscow’s 4th City Hospital. Plainclothes agents came to interrogate my father on the intensive care floor. “If you want his death, go ahead,” an attending physician told them. The professional thugs wavered. Late at night my mother and I met with a bearded New York Times Moscow correspondent and passed him an open letter of protest.
Against the backdrop of my family’s tribulations, I continued to attend Moscow University, where I was a sophomore at the School of Soil Science. It was a place I didn’t appreciate enough for having given me, a Jew and a scion of refusenik activists, a salutary deferral from the military draft at the time when the country was still sending her young lads to slaughter in Afghanistan. That fall, I went through a spiral of misadventures triggered by my own efforts to break from natural sciences and enter the creative world, when my failed attempt to switch to a major in art history nearly resulted in my expulsion from the university. With much difficulty I was able to backpedal to soil science, but my position became more vulnerable and would so remain for another year and a half, until the Soviet authorities finally granted us permission to leave.
This brings me to January 1986. Just a few days prior, at my New Year celebration with a group of Soviet youths from the Jewish urban intelligentsia, there was spontaneous talk about the country’s new course of “liberalization,” of Gorbachev having finally taken charge of the party, and of the appointment of Yeltsin, the country’s future dismantler-in-chief, as Moscow’s party boss. One of my pals, a student at the Institute of Oil and Gas (it was nicknamed “ink-blotter”) and a great fan of the Soviet chansonniers, whispered in my ear: “I heard on the Voice of America that Yeltsin isn’t a retrograde and certainly not an antisemite. And he even plays tennis.” Of course he did!
On the first freezing day of the spring semester, as I traversed the yawning vestibule of Moscow University’s main tower, I spotted an announcement: “Courses of the Directors of the People’s Theaters.” Below was the address of the university theater and the time of the interviews. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned to differentiate between life’s false messages and true signs of destiny. In the evening as my parents and I gathered for supper, I couldn’t stop talking about the announcement.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if they accepted you?” said my mother.
“In the 1960s it used to be a good theater,” said my father. “Once I even talked with Rolan Bykov, who was then artistic director.”
“A comedy. About the discovery of smallpox vaccination,” my father explained.
“But what could I offer them?” I asked my parents. “My theatrical experience is negligible.”
“Don’t undersell yourself,” my father advised. “Hold on tight to the classics. They’ll always be by your side. Come up with some playwriting device. Propose to stage Pushkin. You’ll be fine; you’ll see.”
So on a wintry evening in the middle of January, I walked—ran—from the intersection of the former Gorky Street all the way down to Manège Square for my interview. This was my favorite of Moscow’s theatrical and musical routes: past the new stage of the Moscow Arts Theater, then the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya (formerly the State Yiddish Theater), the Mayakovsky Theater, and the Moscow Conservatory of Music (which students of my generation dubbed konserva, roughly “canned music.”) I reached the dimly lit bottom of Herzen Street, and there it was, the recessed corner building on the right side of the street.
Four people conducted the interviews: Iosif Lopatkin, the theater’s artistic director; Vyacheslav Lozhkin, a playwright; Nikita Burkin, an acting coach; and Lubov Arkadievna Zalesskaya, a theater critic. They were enthroned in a chamber hall at a table draped with a velvet tablecloth the color of overripe cherries. Outside, roughly 20 of us waited in the hallway, mostly students from natural sciences, mathematics, and physics. I struck up a conversation with a tall, Varangian-looking fellow who kept rubbing a fur hat with tattered ear flaps between his hands. His name was Sergei Mezentsev, and he immediately told me his passion was Brecht and epic theater. Next to him stood a Levantine girl, whose name was Yulia Levina. The way they gazed at each other communicated that they were in love.
The committee invited the applicants in alphabetical order, which meant that, as always, I was at the bottom of the proverbial list—still lower in Russian (ш) than in English (s). The examiners at the cherry-clothed table followed a script clearly rehearsed to tiresome perfection. Lopatkin asked the main questions. From time to time Lozhkin wedged in a hangman’s joke polished by many years of use. Burkin invited the applicant to do a quick stage study of a literary character, while Lubov Arkadievna only straightened her floral shawl and uttered occasional short phrases of commendation such as “Isn’t that just marvelous?”
“And you, my dear soil scientist, what would you like to stage?” Lopatkin asked me. Following the advice of my father, who to this day serves as my player-coach, I pitched Eugene Onegin.
“How lovely,” Lubov Arkadievna pronounced.
“Once again Pushkin has to bear the brunt,” the corpulent Lozhkin squeezed out, dark like a storm cloud.
“Ponderous indeed,” said Lopatkin, wiping his gold-rimmed spectacles. “And how exactly do you propose to do it?”
“As a Greek drama with a chorus of Russian peasant girls dressed as ladies,” I explained. After I did an impression of a gudgeon, the small overcautious freshwater fish from the classical tale by a Russian satirist, Nikita Burkin nodded with satisfaction.
“Would you like to recite a couple of your poems for us?” Lopatkin asked.
“Perhaps another time,” I answered.
At the end of the interviews Burkin came out of the chamber hall and read the names of the five lucky young men and one lucky young woman who had been admitted to the Courses of the Directors of the People’s Theaters. I was on the list. Classes would start at the end of January.
Almost immediately I knew that I hadn’t just wandered into an absurd theater of the country’s stagnation, but into a veritable late-Soviet freak show. There was no teaching plan whatsoever. Every Monday at 7 in the evening, the six of us appeared in the building of the university theater only to be passed through the same millstones. First Nikita Burkin would have us do a warm-up after Michael Chekhov’s system of acting technique. When he got carried away—and he always did—he’d start talking about a past production of Shakespeare or Racine. “When I worked at the Theater of the Moscow Soviet …,” he would start but then cut himself short. The names of the professional theaters where Burkin had worked changed constantly; the roles of Horatio or Orestes remained.
After that, Vyacheslav Lozhkin, his gaze lowered, would go on about his own theatrical accomplishments. Even inside the theater’s overheated space he did not remove his coat. His greatest success had been a production of his comedy at the Theater of the Soviet Army.
“You have no idea what went on. People would line up from the street corner to the box office,” Lozhkin spoke in an underworld basso voice. “And then they shut down the production.” Once he hinted that the creator of Ivan Denisovich himself had “looked favorably” at the idea of Lozhkin’s stage version of his short novel.
This brought us to the end of the meeting, when Lopatkin would announce: “And now Lubov Arkadievna Zalesskaya will tell you about the Stanislavsky system.”
Then Lubov Arkadievna would emerge from some secret room to deliver a monologue of her own. In each of her presentations, she would quote the phrase “to become the other while remaining oneself,” and this line struck me as contrary to what was happening with myself and thousands of other Jewish refuseniks.
Lopatkin usually sat at the table half-turned away from us. Thumbing his silk scarf, he coughed with affectation and furiously extinguished his papirosa. He never told stories, only giving us recommendations on what plays to read, exclusively by Western playwrights: “Pirandello, Anouilh, Dürrenmatt.”
To this day I don’t understand why Lopatkin and his associates even bothered with us. They already had a student troupe of young actors and actresses, all of them aglow with thespian love. And then there were the six of us, the inept directors of the people’s theaters, six escapists and runaways. But at the end of February 1986 Lopatkin announced that we should start thinking about “certification” in June of that year. Each of us would have to direct a short production—a one-act play, a scene from a full-length one or else an original stage adaptation. We had to present an idea to the quadrumvirate, get their blessing, and recruit performers from the university. Revisiting my Eugene Onegin proposal, I first suggested doing Tatiana’s vatic dream before the duel, but Lopatkin shot it down as “much too erotic.” Then I thought of Gogol’s Inspector-General.
“This is an eternal Russian story,” I spoke out. “Don’t you think very little has changed since the reign of Nicholas I? So why can’t we move the action to a provincial Soviet town someplace in central Russia? Dress the policemen in Soviet uniform? Instead of the charitable hospital we’ll have a district clinic and so forth …”
“What about naked?” Lozhkin asked.
“Forgive me, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, what do you mean?”
“Can we have the civil servants naked on stage? Isn’t it what you mean?” Lozhkin asked and loudly blew his nose.
“They will most definitely not allow naked actors on stage,” said the former professional actor Nikita Burkin.
It was becoming clear that the classical repertoire was not going to cut it. I had to come up with something more original. Without taking my father’s advice, I decided to propose a stage interpretation of “Light Breathing,” a novella by Ivan Bunin, who emigrated from Russia in 1920, settled in France, and in 1933 became the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I admired his stories and also identified with his life in exile and his staunch anti-Bolshevism. And “Light Breathing,” a novella composed and published in 1916, the last prerevolutionary year, always had a spellbinding effect on me. I was hardly alone in thinking it a masterpiece of short fiction—Vladimir Nabokov considered “Light Breathing” an exemplary story. In some sense, the novella marked a breaking point of Russian classical literature—as though the “last Russian classic,” as Bunin would later crown the book, refused to surrender to the torrents of modernism.
The events linked to Bunin’s novella and its failed theatrical production would continue to haunt me for years, so perhaps a brief summary is in order. A meditation on life’s evanescence and the destructive powers of desire, “Light Breathing” follows three interconnected episodes from the short life of Olya Meshcherskaya, a high-school queen in a provincial Russian city. The story’s three main episodes are: Olya’s seduction by her father’s much older friend; Olya’s tense conversation with her headmistress; and Olya’s eventual murder by her lover, a Cossack officer.
At the heart of the interpretation of this novella that I proposed lay the idea that on stage the events of “Light Breathing” would be narrated not by Bunin’s authorial voice, but by the voices of other Russian classics named in the novella. Thus Shenshin, a student at the town’s classical high school who is in love with Olya Meshcherskaya, is the voice of the poet Afanasy Fet (an illegitimate son of the landowner Shenshin). And Olya Meshcherskaya herself is a descendant of Prince Meshchersky, and thus the poet Gavrila Derzhavin, Pushkin’s great predecessor, would return from the dead, ascend the stage and speak of his old friend’s heiress. I described all of this quite colorfully at the next meeting, and only at the conclusion of my pitch did the devil make me boast my erudition:
“Incidentally,” I said, thinking that it had gone over very well. “Incidentally, in his late collection Dark Avenues, Bunin would give the last name Meshchersky both to the storyteller and his cousin, the giant whom Nathalie later marries…”
“How very elegant of him!” said Lubov Arkadievna.
I thought that even the misanthropic Lozhkin took to my idea.
Tossing a long gray lock off his forehead, Iosif Lopatkin turned first to me, lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles ablaze, and screamed out:
“Why in the world do you care so much about Bunin? The fascists stood at the gates of our motherland, and he sat in his maritime villa and wrote about naked arses.”
The discussion of my project was delayed. In the meantime, I decided to test the theater’s artistic director. At the next meeting I approached Lopatkin as he stood in the foyer, smoking, and asked in a quiet voice:
“Iosif Veniaminovich, a question. Are you Jewish?”
At first he was taken aback, but quickly recovered and replied so loudly that the actresses and actors standing in the theater foyer all turned in our direction:
“I happen to be a Jew, as I believe you are as well. And he ...,” and Lopatkin spread his right arm in the direction of a tall actor with long Apollonian curls and eyes the color of prunes, “... and he is a Greek. And why does it really matter? In theater, young man, there is neither Greek nor Jew. Just people on stage.”
After this incident Lopatkin stopped acknowledging me. Out of inertia I continued to attend the Monday evening classes. A Moscow March had taken over the city and the streets filled with the smell of thawing earth. The other five future directors of the people’s theaters were already rehearsing their productions, and I was still hoping that Lopatkin would melt swords into ploughshares and allow my production of “Light Breathing” to go forth.
One evening at the end of March the phone rang at my family’s apartment not far from the Research Institute of Atomic Energy.
“This is Nikita Burkin speaking. I’m calling on behalf of the theater leadership.”
“Nikita Alekseyevich, was I expelled?” I asked, feeling something akin to relief. “Heavens no, quite the opposite. Iosif Veniaminovich Lopatkin requests that you join our admissions committee. We’re interviewing a new group of performers.”
“Forgive me, but why ask me? Don’t you know that they haven’t even approved my certification project …”
“Yes, but those are just temporary hurdles. You show promise. That’s why we’d like you to try your hand at selecting new actors.”
“Thank you, Nikita Alekseyevich. To be honest, I was contemplating the scene of Treplyov’s suicide,” I said, referring to Chekhov’s The Seagull. “A mop stick falls behind the stage. Bang—an instant death.”
“Why to Yelets, Nina?” Burkin quoted dreamily.
“I have accepted a stage engagement there for the whole winter,” I sang out the words of Nina Zarechnaya in a mock falsetto.
“You, my friend, should be putting on operettas and not Chekhov,” Burkin tenderly giggled into the receiver. “Well, until Wednesday.”
Once again I found myself in the chamber hall of the university theater, facing the long velvet-covered table. On the table were a dusty carafe with water and a heavy ashtray (the kind Chekhov proposed to improvise a story about), into which the artistic director Lopatkin now chucked his vile papirosy. Gathered at the table were Lopatkin with a mane of silver hair and a paisley cravat; Lozhkin in a black leather coat of the sort worn by Gestapo officers in movies; Burkin in a brand-new, greenish-gray tweed jacket known in Russian as “split pea print”; and Lubov Arkadievna Zalesskaya clad in a purple shawl with a customary silver fringe. Except this time, for some inexplicable reason, I was to join them at the table and sit in judgment of aspiring performers.
I was placed between Lozhkin and Zalesskaya. Burkin, who was in charge of the selection process, hurriedly explained the order of the interviews. This time they were calling the 30 applicants not alphabetically but according to the posted signup sheet. Each student was asked to do three things: introduce themselves; do an impression of an animal; and recite a poem or prose excerpt.
At about 8 p.m. a tall young lady in a cornflower blue dress made of crepe de Chine entered the chamber hall. I cannot say she was beautiful. But one immediately felt her breeding, a sense of finely cultivated origins. If I had seen such a young lady in the streets of Moscow, I would have first thought: “Wow she’s a tall drink of water.” And then I would have noted her slender legs, narrow ankles, broad shoulders, and the emerald glimmer in her eyes. And I would have probably wanted to meet her.
“Well, tell us about yourself,” Nikita Burkin suggested to the young lady, regarding her dress and matching blue shoes.
“My name is Olga Yeletskaya. I study law. More than anything in the world I love theater,” said the pedigreed but unbeautiful applicant.
“Do tell, are you descended from the princely house of Yeletsky?” Lubov Arkadievna asked, strange hope in her voice.
Suddenly Lozhkin remembered something and livened up.
“Nice town, Yelets. The Yelets Drama Theater was going to put on my comedy,” he barked. Lopatkin hungrily pulled on his papirosa but said nothing.
“And what kind of animal were you hoping to show us?” Burkin inquired.
“I will show you a steppe adder,” Olya Yeletskaya replied.
First she sat down on the parquet floor, then prostrated herself and lay motionless for about a minute. Very slowly she began to raise her head and untangle her right hand from the restraints of her body. The hand unfolded and gyrated in the style of a periscope. A hissing, which was actually quite credible, accompanied the ascent of the head and hand.
“A nightmare,” Lozhkin said rather loudly.
Olya Yeletskaya gracefully got up and bowed her head.
“That was … That was ingenious,” Burkin said. “And what text will you be reading for us?”
“I shall read an excerpt from a novella by my favorite Russian writer. You will, doubtless, soon guess who he is. I would only like to add,” and Olya Yeletskaya pronounced these words in such a way that they sounded particularly authentic. “I would like to add that the author was in love with my great-grandmother.”
“We’re all terribly intrigued,” Lubov Arkadievna said. “Go ahead, my dear, please read.”
I knew the source right away; the others had also recognized it before the excerpt gave away the title:
“’In one of Papa’s books—and he has many ancient, curious ones—I read what kind of beauty must a woman possess … You see, there’s so much there that I couldn’t remember it all: yes, definitely black eyes like boiling tar—I swear, that’s exactly what it said: like boiling tar!—eyelashes black as night, a tenderly playing blush, a thin waist, arms longer than average—you get it, longer than average!” Olya Yeletskaya read, smoothing the ruffles of her dress, “… a slender foot, a rather large chest, a neatly rounded calf, knees the color of seashell, downsloping shoulders—I have memorized much of it almost by heart, so it’s all accurate … But the main thing, do you know what it is? Light breathing! And I have it, just listen to the way I take my breath, don’t I have it?” Olya Yeletskaya paused, as though she were listening to herself breathe.
At that moment Lopatkin slammed his open left hand on the table. “Again it’s Bunin! Enough! This is some sort of madness,” he was yelling, now turning to Olya Yeletskaya, now to me. “What in the world is wrong with you people? Don’t we have other writers besides your asinine Bunin?”
“Iosif Veniaminovich, my dear, you can’t do that,” Lubov Arkadievna spoke. “You’ll hurt the feelings of a young gifted actress.”
Olya Yeletskaya came closer to the examiners’ table. Her lips trembled.
“You will live to regret this,” quietly she said to Lopatkin. Then she gracefully turned around on her little heels and ran out of the chamber hall.
I caught up with her at the Manège exhibition hall, the Kremlin’s crenelated walls looming ahead. Olya was sitting on the steps and weeping. Mascara trickled down her cheeks, forming a painting on her face. Winter boots jutted out of a brightly colored plastic bag of the sort many Soviet women carried along with a purse. Olya’s stockinged feet were soaked from running in dress shoes over March street slush.
“You need to change. Now,” I said, trying to put on the air of an older, experienced man. “And don’t take this thing to heart. Big deal, some student theater …”
“For you it’s not a big deal … It’s not so much the theater but the way they treated me. How repulsive they are!”
“About that you’re right,” I said, sitting down on the steps next to Olya. “I’m probably going to leave this place soon.”
I told her about my fiascos, and also about “naked arses.”
“You’re brave,” Olya Yeletskaya said, tucking a braid of her hair under a hat of white mohair wool.
Wet snow started falling again.
“Let’s go,” I said to Olya. “I’ll treat you to some pancakes. There’s a place nearby, on Herzen Street. Maybe we’ll make it.”
After standing in line, we each ate a serving of pancakes with thin chocolate sauce and watery coffee. We stood at a round table by the window and stared at the city folk walking by outside.
“Listen, and about Bunin and your great-grandmother … Is it true?” I asked.
“Of course it is. Can you imagine making this up? I was even named after her.” “That’s pretty cool.”
“Have you ever been to Yelets?” it was Olya’s turn to ask.
“No, I haven’t had the occasion.”
“In Yelets the locals still call our old family mansion with columns the ‘Yeletsky house.’” “It’s on the former Manège Street,” Olya added.
It was closing time and the habitually angry pancake lady kicked us out of the café. Together we walked up Tverskoy Boulevard to Pushkin Square.
“Thank you, you’re very nice,” Olya said.
She kissed me on the cheek and ran down the steps into the metro station.
The following day, at about 10 p.m., Olya Yeletskaya telephoned.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Of course not.”
“You know,” Olya said a bit nervously. “I was brought up this way … If I like someone or something, I don’t know how to hide it.”
Feeling trapped, I said nothing.
“Let’s go out,” Olya suggested. “I like you a lot.”
“Olya, I’m actually seeing someone,” I answered a half-truth. “You see, it’s serious …” From the red receiver came some hissing, and then Olya’s angry words followed: “You will regret it, my dear. I don’t tolerate refusals.”
She said exactly that and slammed down the receiver. The reason I still remember it verbatim was the word “refusal,” which at the time held a special meaning for my family.
After the falling out with Lopatkin and the encounter with Olya Yeletskaya, I withdrew from the Courses of the Directors of the People’s Theaters. Like Chekhov’s bride, I left thinking that I would never again return to this theatrical story with the young Princess Yeletskaya, her great-grandmother, and the writer Ivan Bunin.
Over 30 years went by. At this point, having lived in Boston for as long as I had once lived in Moscow, I was teaching at a liberal arts college, writing books, and traveling. I married on the late side. My wife, a physician, the daughter of a Jewish man originally from North Bukovina and a Jewish woman originally from South Africa, did not grow up with a lot of Russian culture. My wife’s father used to tell his kids that if he went back to Czernowitz, they would make him a doctor in the Russian army. My wife and I visited Russia during our honeymoon, but after that she didn’t feel a need to join me on my regular trips back. Russia hadn’t touched her heart the way Italy or France did. She took my Russian-Soviet—background as a given, yet belonged to the category of people who take care not to repeat the mistakes of Lot’s wife and of Euridice, which is why they didn’t look back and lived by—for—the present and future. Unlike my wife, memories of my Soviet years still held me captive.
Now and again I would run into phantoms of the Soviet past, though it was a bit surprising that only once did I cross paths with the people I used to know at the university theater. This happened in Israel, in January 2014. I was speaking at the Jerusalem Russian Library. A powerfully built man wearing a white-and-blue woven kippah, his full round beard the color of ripe wheat, came up to me after my talk. A petite woman in an ankle-length skirt, strands of thick, salty black hair refusing to stay under her headscarf, stood beside him.
“Do you remember us?” asked the bearded man.
“Your faces look familiar,” I replied. “But I’m not quite sure ...”
“January ’86, student theater … Remember now?”
They were Sergei Mezentsev and Yulia Levina, who were in the same cohort as I was at the Courses of the Directors of the People’s Theaters. The Varangian boy and Levantine girl who so adored Brecht …
Nothing should surprise an ex-Soviet, including the fact that in 1991 Sergei (who was not Jewish when I met him in Moscow) and Yulia (who was Jewish yet showed no interest in her origins) made aliyah and became settler activists.
“I sleep with a submachine gun,” Sergei said, smiling broadly.
They told me they had five children.
“You know, we have your books at home,” Sergei added. Yulia quietly nodded. “Guys, what about your theater work?” I asked.
“Youthful illusions,” Sergei answered.
“That’s very true,” I said.
We stood in the middle of the library floor.
“By the way, do you remember Lopatkin, the artistic director?” I asked for no apparent reason.
“Of course we do, are you kidding?” Yulia said. “You left, but we … we stayed and worked at the theater for three more years. As Loptakin’s assistants.”
“Didn’t he become quite successful in the late 1980s?” I asked.
“He did. One of perestroika’s heroes. His was put in charge of his own professional theater. Staged a play about Stalin that half of Moscow saw. Became a People’s Artist of Merit,” Sergei said with pride.
“And then,” Yulia added. “And then his life ended.”
We exchanged contacts and said goodbye. In the evening, when I got back to my hotel room in Rechavia, I looked up Lopatkin’s name and quickly came upon an announcement that in March 1999 “the distinguished figure of the Russian theater, director and teacher Iosif Veniaminovich Lopatkin was killed with a pistol shot in the entryway of his apartment building near Dynamo Stadium. The murder is under investigation. The funeral service will take place at the Church of All Saints.”
In the spring of 2019 I started to prepare for my annual summer trip to Russia. The third edition of my book about Bunin and Nabokov had just come out, and I was looking forward to readings in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For many years I had been bringing my daughters along on my summer pilgrimages to Russia, and it was the turn of Tanyusha, my younger one.
Every time we journeyed to Russia, I tried to show my daughters not only new parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg but also a slice of antiquated life, pockets of the past that had survived and remained more or less the same as I had once seen it as a university student, when I fell in love with rural Russia. This time I had decided on a trip to the places of Ivan Bunin’s youth, which lay in the Tula, Lipetsk, and Oryol provinces south of Moscow. I was contemplating a short biography of the great writer, and how could one imagine Bunin the teenager, Bunin the dropout from the classical high school, without traveling to the towns of Efremov and Yelets? I was even invited to give a talk in the Bunin museum in Efremov, in the former house of his older brother Evgeny.
Here I should explain that annual visits weren’t just an opportunity to show different parts of Russia to my daughters. For me these visits were also a return to my own childhood and youth—the lost joy of pure friendship I had experienced as a young person in the wrong place yet at the right time. Joining me on the annual trips to one historic site or another were my dear friends Katya Kogan and Max Krolik, whom I’d befriended when we were children in the early 1970s. On our annual pilgrimages—to Dostoevsky’s Staraya Russa or to the Pskov Province where Pushkin had spent his northern exile—I felt not only like an American father and immigrant of many years, but also a teenager who had never parted with Russia.
So on a hot morning in July 2019 our party got into a large black SUV with three rows of seats, left Moscow, and drove south in the direction of Tolstoy’s ancestral lands. Our group comprised three generations. Katya, a philanthropist and founder of one of the first private nursing homes in Russia, was driving the black SUV. Next to Katya, a map in hand, sat Alechka, Max Krolik’s second wife, a screenwriter. Slouched in the second row were Krolik and I, sipping Old Königsberg, a Russian-bottled cognac, and chasing it with bitter Russian chocolate by the name of Vdokhnovenie (Inspiration). My younger daughter, having claimed the whole third seat, was left to her own (electronic) devices. Katya, Krolik, and I were all in our 50s; Alechka was a little over 30; Tanyusha was 11. Three generations of those who travel by land …
At around 1 in the afternoon we drove into Efremov, a tidy provincial town where decay didn’t hit you in the face and the air was scented with ironweed. The museum occupied a brick mansard house, its walls the color of dark red coral.
An attractive woman wearing a white blouse and scarlet skirt ran out of the door and greeted us. She introduced herself as head curator.
“So happy you’re here,” she said. “We’ve all been on pins and needles. Everything is completely ready.”
We invited her to join us for lunch as our guest, and she replied, with much dignity: “Thank you, but I just got up from the table.” This sounded like a phrase from a faraway past.
About 60 people came to hear my talk. They included teachers, musicians, local authors, and even a regional benefactor of the museum, a man with a Germanic last name. A whole clan of Bunin’s relatives was also there in attendance, all of them resembling the writer himself.
I hadn’t enjoyed a talk so much in a very long time. First a trio of local musicians performed Astor Piazzolla tunes. Then the director of the museum spoke about my family, our lives before and after emigration, and showed photos she had found on the internet. It was very touching and only a tiny bit embarrassing. After the introduction I talked about the great rivalry of Bunin and Nabokov, and at the end Tanyusha and I signed copies of my books. There was only one jarring moment. During the questions, a female voice asked a question from the very back of the museum’s parlor:
“Professor, what is your position regarding the return of the Bunin papers from England to Russia, the great writer’s homeland?”
It was so crowded I couldn’t see the woman who posed the question. And I really didn’t feel like getting into it and upsetting the spirit of the gathering. I made an effort and replied:
“As far as I know, the Bunin papers were donated to Leeds University by the writer’s legitimate heirs. We’re here to celebrate the art of Ivan Alekseevich Bunin.” And that’s where I left it. The museum’s director, as far as I could tell, sensed my reluctance and steered the conversation away from controversy. Afterwards some of the guests and all the staff members went out into the courtyard to take a group photo. I sent Tanyusha ahead and lingered behind, hoping to take another look at the room where Bunin’s mother spent her last days.
“Excuse me, professor,” the head curator approached me. “I would like you to meet a great friend of our museum.”
I turned around. A tall stately woman of about 50 stood in the doorway. She wore an elegant if conservative skirt suit made of thin wool the color of ripe cherries. A cream high-necked silk blouse could be seen under her jacket. Her lustrous chestnut hair was carefully arranged into a double bun. A string of pinkish pearls hung around her neck. In her right hand, she held an expensive-looking briefcase of yellow leather.
The head curator ceremoniously introduced the tall lady:
“This is Olga Vikentievna Yeletskaya, senior state councilor of the Russian Federation. She does so much for the development of museums and archives in our country. And especially for Bunin’s heritage.”
“We’ve actually met,” said the lady from my Soviet past. “Don’t you recognize me, dear professor?”
“Of course, I do,” I answered.
“Oh forgive me please … I had no idea you knew each other,” the nice museum worker sounded flustered.
“We have long been following your publications, professor,” said Olga Yeletskaya. “We follow them, and we value the fact that even though you left Russia, you have remained a friend of Russian culture.”
She hadn’t, in fact, changed much, even though 33 years had gone by. She had the same air of imperial self-importance. I immediately thought of Hélène Kuragin’s “alabaster breast” from War and Peace. Hadn’t they taught us well in Soviet schools—all to their own detriment?
Luckily for me, my daughter ran into the room and pulled me into the courtyard, where the museum staff and local intelligentsia were posing in three undulating rows in front of the bust of Bunin. We came out of the museum annex and stood next to Katya and Krolik; Olga Yeletskaya followed and stood in the front row just left of Bunin.
At first I didn’t give much thought to Olga’s appearance on my horizon, just as I wouldn’t give much thought to dark patterns on the surface of the moon. I would certainly never have connected my talk at the Bunin museum with the restoration of an old theatrical story.
In the meantime we said goodbye to Efremov and its inhabitants and loaded into the black SUV.
“What was that all about?” Katya asked me.
“It’s practically a movie script: While traveling across rural Russia of Bunin’s youth, a Russian American writer encounters his old flame,” commented Alechka.
“Have a sip of cognac. Let’s toast your victory,” said Krolik, taking out the half-empty flat bottle and a new chocolate bar.
“Cut it out, people, seriously. What flame? If anything, she’s a flame extinguisher. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about her. Until now, that is …”
The crème-indigo-and-gold Ascension Cathedral soared over the ancient city of Yelets, our next stop. A band played in the town garden, where young ladies on dates with young men walked with pride and happy Russian families strolled the shady alleys. We were staying at the Larks Hotel on Lenin Street (the former Manège Street). The hotel was in a two-story stone mansion with a cast iron entrance and overhang. The mansion’s ornate window trim and eaves were painted white. Walking from the reception area toward a back staircase with carved balustrades, we saw, occupying a place of honor on the wall of the guest parlor, a large portrait of Stalin in the uniform of the marshal of the Soviet Union.
“Why do you have that painting here?” I asked the receptionist who was about to show us to our rooms. “This happens to be a painting by a local artist. Our owner collects them,” she replied. “Everything you see here on the walls is by local Yelets masters.”
“Excuse me,” Alechka inquired. “Could you tell us who the owner is?”
“You know, she doesn’t like to advertise her name …”
“Well, perhaps you could give us a hint?” I asked.
“This building used to be their ancestral mansion,” the reception lady answered with pride. “Our owner, she reclaimed it, had it all restored to its original design and prerevolutionary style.”
“And your Stalin, he’s also from before the revolution?” Alechka asked.
We decided to change and go out for dinner. I came down a few minutes before the others, removed the portrait of the murderer of nations from the wall, and placed it under the main staircase. Later in the evening, when we came back to the hotel after dinner, a different painting was hanging in place of Stalin’s portrait—a vase with golden elongated grapes, blushing apples and smoky pears.
“That was fast,” Krolik pointed out, and we parted until morning.
The following day was so full that I still don’t understand where I got the energy to go on a nighttime expedition which nearly led to a disaster. In the morning I gave a lecture at the local university—the I.A. Bunin Yelets State University, formerly a teachers college, before taking an extensive walking tour of Yelets and driving to the homesteads of Buturki and Ozyorki, which Bunin’s family once owned.
For me the tour started and ended at the Yelets Women’s High School. This doesn’t mean I ignored the town’s other attractions. I dutifully photographed the old cemetery which Bunin describes in “Light Breathing,” the cottage where young Bunin lived as a boarder while attending the Yelets Men’s Classical High School (which produced a number of distinguished graduates, including the future People’s Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko), and even the house-museum of the famous Soviet composer Tikhon Khrennikov. But for me the prism of the whole story, through which the prospect of an entirely different finale was revealed, was the Yelets Women’s High School.
This edifice of three stories was built in the 1870s with such thought and care that it survived the revolution and Civil War, the wartime bombings of the town, and the peripeteia of postwar Soviet living. The workers college, which later grew into the teachers university, used to have its offices here. When we toured the former Yelets Women’s High School, silence reigned in its halls—either a major renovation was about to start, or the former offices were moving to the main campus. I was most struck by the gorgeous one-piece, cast-iron staircase, its balustrades a masterwork of iron lace.
“How could they afford such fancy décor?” Katya asked our tour guide.
“My dear lady, you probably don’t know this,” the guide answered with adorned pride. “Yelets used to be one of Russia’s wealthiest small cities. Our grain merchants were famous all over the empire.”
We roamed around the building, entering former department offices and auditoria, now emptied of furniture. A young lady with “light breathing,” Olya Meshcherskaya in Bunin’s story, once attended this women’s high school. Something led me to a classroom, one of its long walls lined with tall bookcases with glass doors standing atop cabinets with solid wooden doors. Stored inside the glass bookcases were old teaching materials. I saw blazing red bindings and covers of old books. The bookcases and cabinets were not only locked with a key but also protected by horizontal strips of paper with stamped clay seals. I pulled on the door knobs of the cabinets and brushed my right thumb across the polished wood, collecting a thick layer of dust. I couldn’t shake the thought of undoing the locks, breaking the seals and getting inside the bookcases and cabinets. I realized it was sheer madness. And yet I knew I would find what I was looking for …
In the evening, our party had a lot of vodka at dinner—more than I drink at home in America. When we got back to the hotel my daughter fell asleep right away, whereas I had an attack of insomnia. I read until late, and then I finally dozed off. When I woke up I wrote two notes by the light of the iPhone. One of them I placed on the side table by my daughter’s bed: “Tanyusha, if I’m not there when you wake up, go to Katya’s room. Love, Papa.” The other note, in Russian, was for Katya herself: “I’ll explain everything later. Stay with Tanyusha. Don’t leave the hotel without her. Kisses, M.” I quietly got dressed and left the room. On the way downstairs I placed the note under Katya’s door.
I stole into the basement, opened the mechanical room, took two screwdrivers and a pair of pliers and buried the tools in my deep side pocket. The screwdrivers and pliers jingled as I walked. It was about 10 minutes by foot from the hotel to the building of the former Yelets Women’s High School. The front door was locked. I looked both ways over my shoulder, removed a flat screwdriver from my pocket and jammed the lock open. I was surprised by the ease with which it gave. Having snuck inside the building, I ran down the corridor and entered the last classroom on the first floor. I stopped, catching my breath. Where to begin?
In one of the glass bookcases I saw a stack of bound notebooks. Breaking a slender lock, I started leafing through the contents. Those were senior theses by the philology students from the 1930s. Like a gambler, body hovering over the roulette table, desperate but unable to place his bet, I kept turning my gaze from one cabinet to the next. My hands were shaking. “What the hell is wrong with you? Stop before it’s too late,” I tried to reason with myself, but all in vain.
I kept breaking open the doors of the cabinets and examining their contents. There was a lot of curious stuff there—old textbooks, primers and dictionaries, some rulers, compasses and copper inkwells. But I was searching for something else, something I wasn’t finding. It was already 3 a.m. I was nervous about getting back to the hotel but couldn’t stop.
Three unopened cabinets remained in the darkest, farthest corner of the classroom, where neither the summer moonlight not the glow of street lamps could reach. I sat on the floor in front of the remaining three cabinets, stuck the blade of the screwdriver under the heart of the lock and pulled on the door. On the middle shelf there were notebooks that looked old. In my head I called them “journals.” There were about 50 notebooks, and dusting off the covers, I was able to make out the names of the young ladies who attended the high school. Taking a chance, I pulled six notebooks from the middle, spread them before me and started examining them. I wasn’t surprised when I saw, written by a determined hand, the name “Olga Yeletskaya,” and the year, “1886.” The notebook was half-filled with French passages, which would have taken me a while to read. At the end of the notebook I located a page folded into a corner. On the back of the corner: the words “Ваня Бунинъ” (Vanya Bunin) and beneath them, drawn in a fine ink pen, a cupid holding a bow and arrow. Four more pages followed, filled with small, elegant Russian lines and divided into paragraphs, each opening with a date. It looked like a diary, hidden in the depths of a school exercise notebook. I took out my iPhone and, feeling something like ecstasy, photographed the title page, the leather binding, the corner, and the drawing with the name of the great Russian writer above the flying cupid. Having made sure that the flash worked sufficiently, I began the scanning of the diary pages.
Suddenly a blinding light washed over me from above. I turned and saw Olga Yeletskaya, frozen in the classroom doorway. Over the cherry business suit she wore a beige belted trench coat with epaulets. Two gaping police officers, a lieutenant and a sergeant, stood behind Yeletskaya’s back.
“Well, professor, just as expected,” she said loudly. I was silent, my eyes still adjusting to the light after several hours in the dark.
“Did you think you were getting away with this?” Yeletskaya asked.
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I answered. “I just wanted to know the truth behind the fiction.”
“And so now you do!” she said in a triumphal voice.
“Go ahead,” she ordered the policemen, her voice vibrating with power. “Start the processing protocol. Forced entry. Broken front door lock. Broken bookcases and cabinets. And don’t forget the fingers …”
“Olya, do you remember how back in ’86 you did an impression of a steppe adder?” I asked, addressing her with the familiar ty pronoun.
“Leave us,” she ordered the two policemen. “Close the door and wait outside.” Olga Yeletskaya approached me, softly stepping on the old parquet floor.
“Why did you come here?” she asked. “Why would you even want to go back to Russia? We don’t need you here, do you understand? We-do-not-need-you.”
“Yes, I understand, Olga Vikentievna, I understand everything,” I said and suddenly felt with the utmost clarity that I had to escape from there and rescue my child, no matter the cost. “Hand me your phone, professor,” said Yeletskaya.
She erased all the photos and scans of her great-grandmother’s notebook before she handed the phone back to me.
“By the way, I hadn’t finished reading your great-grandmother’s diary,” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now give me the notebook,” Olga Yeletskaya ordered me.
She lowered the book into her briefcase, closed the clasps, and smiled with malice.
“You took pity on me back in 1986,” she said. “At that idiotic theater audition. And then you took pity on me again—when you turned me down. Now we’re even, professor, doubly even. Go, I’m not keeping you.”
“Aren’t you going to bring up the Jews who abandoned Russia on the brink of disaster?” I asked, unable to hold back.
“I was raised not to say certain things out loud,” Princess Yeletskaya sliced. “Go now!” Legs wobbly, I walked toward the door. My hand already on the ornate door handle, I turned back and asked Yeletskaya:
“And the notebook, you’ll surely hide it in some secret vault? Or will you destroy it?” Olga Yeletskaya, senior state councilor of the Russian Federation, turned her gaze from the bookcases and cabinets I had broken to the yellow windows of the former Yelets Women’s High School.
“Leave and do not come back,” she said sternly. Then she looked me in the eye and added “Ever!”
I walked past the police officers and ran down the streets of Yelets. Tanyusha was still asleep when I arrived in the hotel, innocent of her father’s transgressions. I set the alarm for 8 a.m. and fell back asleep.
At breakfast I announced to my friends that something very strange had happened overnight and our plans had changed.
“I’ll tell you everything, but a little later. Now just trust me, my dears. This is for the better …”
We packed hastily, forgetting a gift bag with the lace of Yelets on the table in our hotel room. We loaded into the black SUV and sped off, but not to the great city of Oryol, where we had been planning to conclude our journey through Bunin’s Russia, but back to Moscow. The next morning my daughter and I left on the first flight to Amsterdam.
Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Of Politics and Pandemics. Shrayer’s new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, is forthcoming in April 2023. Follow him on Twitter @MaximDShrayer.