1. The Trans-Siberian Railroad
As with so much else in the Soviet Union, you wondered why they were willing to show you this gangrenous hulk of a land mass: bog in summer, permafrost in permawinter, a waste that seems to have been formed solely for the discomfort of convicts, nomad herdsmen, and anchorites. But railways are one thing that Communism hasn’t savaged, and short of hitching them up in the courtyard of some Palace of Economic Achievement, the trains have got to go somewhere, and somewhere means Siberia. And so there we were, five summer tourists, secured in the vault of that moving medieval sideshow, the Trans-Siberian, riding westward.
We had flown first into Moscow, where much of the full impact of entering Soviet airspace is muted by the cocoon of dollars in which the foreigner travels. Moscow is a curious facsimile of cosmopolitanism, with frayed edges. Big-city staples—fast subway cars and tall buildings—draw the eye away from the absence of meat in the stores and plumbing in the houses, from the riveting spectacle of back-street life, with its dwarfs and holy idiots, its paint-thinner drunkards, hucksters, and tribesmen. (It is no anomaly that Moscow’s most renowned private citizen is the sharpster called Boris the Gypsy.)
But a Moscow landing was nothing compared to our arrival, after an eight-and-a-half-hour flight, in Khabarovsk—the administrative center of the Soviet Far East, the city to which visitors from the Orient first fly on entering the Soviet Union, and where foreigners board the East-West run of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Khabarovsk is a moldering colonial outpost of the Soviet empire—a sweet uncanny city which might force any Japanese tourist, setting foot for the first time on Soviet soil and armed with preconceptions about superpower decorum, to conclude that he is not in the Third World, even, but the fifth or sixth: a Macao without gambling, a Havana without cigars.
A kind of tropical nihilism prevails. Driving into town in the noonday sun, we saw men passed out cold under tamarisk trees, we saw an amputee on a wooden dolly wheeling himself furiously along the middle of an empty highway; at nightfall, in the sooty twilight, we watched a policeman guarding the liquor store, and were approached by a panhandler—a pretty blond child with Oriental features—who asked in a stage whisper if we had any American “Jews” (jeans) to sell.
Khabarovsk is a melancholy backwater of blistered river boats and boulevards deep in dried petals: a city suitable for some kind of aboriginal remake of Showboat—half rococo pagodas turned army barracks, half shanty settlements of a Mongol tribe said to wear fish-scale suits and worship river gods.
The river is the Amur: a primordial expanse of gray delta-ways which the Chinese call the “Black Dragon,” following the legend that some demon of antiquity gave up the ghost in its waters, bleeding into perpetuity a thick unnavigable black sauce. It seems appropriate to the city’s air of well-deserved neglect that it was some three hundred years after its settlement before a meddling Russian general discovered that the Amur led to the sea. In recent years, however, it has come into prominence by default: as more strategic sites like Vladivostok and Kamchatka have become armed camps, Khabarovsk is now a transit zone for the tourist trade.
We were penned up in the foreigners’ waiting room at Khabarovsk Station with a load of pasty East German rubberneckers, and racks of printed propaganda. It was the usual Novosti truth-package that follows one from hotel lobby to airport lounge, delivering its Mickey Finn to one’s powers of incredulity: “Chemical Weapons: A Gas Chamber for Humankind”; “International Terrorism: Who Is Behind It?”
Outside the waiting room squatted a herd of North Korean conscripts with pink cheeks and an air of glazed docility. They were allowed neither in the main lobby with the Russians nor in the tourists’ lounge, but were obliged to crouch in the corridor between, polishing their boots with their fists and gaping in at us.
We boarded the train and were shown to the foreigners’ carriage: a Victorian hive, reeking of disinfectant, with Turkish rugs and striped deck chair canvas on the floor. We were deposited in first-class cabins, each with two benches swathed in starched linen and antimacassars bedeviling every extremity. At the end of our corridor lived a conductor, a conductress, and a compound of furnace, samovar, and coal scuttle, in which the conductress cooked the conductor fat curd pancakes at night.
There were few foreigners on this run and the carriage was fleshed out with safe Soviets. On one side of our suite was a schoolmaster on his way to a spa—squat, Mongol-looking, with a punchy curiosity that seized upon us and wrestled us to the ground. He wanted to know everything. He peppered us with questions about our travels and shook his head in genial amazement over how much we had seen and how little we had learned from it. Then he interrogated us on our schooling. Were most Americans taught Russian in grade school? No? He was extremely put out at this, although he himself knew no English, only a little rusty if serviceable German, resurrected from the eve of World War II. (Russians of late middle age are inclined to know German and no English, but are overjoyed, especially once outside Moscow and Leningrad, to discover that one is American and not East German as they take all white foreigners to be.) And Chinese? No? None? He puffed out his cheeks and shrugged in a great gesture of comic resignation. “Dollars speak,” he concluded. His own prosperity was confirmed by a row of splendid gold teeth. To Soviets, who more than any other nation crave and seek out the stratifications and visible appurtenances of social standing, dental work is especially telling. The rich peasants and black-marketeers secure double sets of gold, party cadres and hacks go for silver and steel respectively, the rest eat cake and rot. It is said that when the Russians came to build socialism in the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese used to make fun of them by sticking the silver from cigarette papers around their teeth.
On our other side were a mother and son, on their way to Moscow. The mother was a tiny redhead, intensely animated. (The USSR has two flavors of ice cream, but only one shade of hair dye: platinum had recently run out, and the red was a molting crimson.) Her son was an overgrown hulk with a frozen mouth and a facial twitch to rival Peter the Great’s. He lolled outside our compartment day and night, playing Chinese Checkers with himself, and squinting in at us, first with one eye and then the other. “Talk to him please, he needs to meet people his own age,” begged the mother of this forty-year-old child. We invited him in for a drink after dinner, he plunked himself down on the bed, went all coy and tongue-tied, and wouldn’t be dislodged till past midnight.
This Ilya, it turned out, was a doctor at a dermatological institute in Khabarovsk. It struck us that a doctor catering to a clientele of soldiers coming from Sakhalin, Vladivostok, and Kamchatka, and of workers at what we took to be a nuclear reactor on the Amur in Khabarovsk itself (judging from convoy trucks sealed to keep out radiation), must come across some curious symptoms; but Ilya was a miracle of blankness. Any patient with a complaint more serious than crabs was sent to a specialist elsewhere, it seemed.
For a Moscow mamma’s boy, what was it like to be posted in an overstaffed and overpaid institute in an idle barracks town in the Soviet Far East? Nothing, that was what it was like. Nothing at all. Radiation be damned: what about girls, or even a good movie? I had seen a movie house the size of a shopping mall on Prospekt Marx, which was offering for the next ice age or so the same double bill that was to dog us across the continent of Soviet Socialist Republics like a heat-seeking missile. It consisted of Torpedoshchlop, a Bulgarian sweetmeat, and Tootsie, which proved a disappointment to Russian audiences, to whom women who look enough like men to be taken for Dustin Hoffman in drag, and yet are considered indescribably delicious, are no big deal. “Oh, that,” said our guide, when asked if she had seen it, and rolled her eyes.
Riding westward across the Soviet Union from its easternmost extremity is an act of invigorating perversity, bringing with it a sense of reintegration into an almost recognizable world. Like the frescoes of Judgment Day in which skeletons climb out of the grave to reassemble their far-flung relics of bone and kiss their loved ones, so the scattered particles of empire seem to rush together into a phalanx of steel and concrete. But good God, what concrete. Sweating, fizzling into rubble, concrete you couldn’t sink a dead cat with—slapped into unfinished cities on the hill, weepy excrescences of a nearby coal mine or timber mill, whose cranes and derricks, sticking out at awkward angles, have rusted into place. Waiting for spare parts can be a full-time socialist activity.
The Far Eastern Economic Zone is a cruel graveyard. The ages of its factories, carved beneath the cross beams, shock: 1980, 1981, and they look as if they might have employed Decembrists. There are few houses and no people, cows, or chickens to be seen, but innumerable timber mills, their yards clotted with white birch rotting into compost, yards like mouths of Soviet teeth before the steel goes in.
This was Birobidzhan, the Promised Land to which Soviet Jewry had been sentenced in 1927, in a happy convergence of interests: Chinese wetbacks were threatening to swarm across the border, urban Jews needed to be converted into farmers, and Pacific military zones had to be fed and supplied. In an even neater stroke, this venture, unlike Stalin’s later attempts at answering the Jewish question, had been substantially funded lay the American and European Jewish communities, who, “being capitalists benefiting from all the good things in life . . . cannot sleep tranquilly knowing that a people akin to them by blood is suffering and being tormented.” This, from Kalinin, is the terrorist-kidnapper’s appeal to conscience.
Colonization was undertaken with little preparation and murderous haste. Birobidzhan was a region which, since its annexation in 1858, Russia had proved unable to colonize and so had used as a dumping ground for the former inhabitants of other, more desirable territorial acquisitions. When the first group of Jewish recruits arrived, they were met by a sparse welcoming committee: the descendants of the Koreans and Trans-Baikal Cossacks resettled there by Nicholas I. One can imagine the delight with which they anticipated sharing their few crusts with the new Jewish settlers. But (as the historian Salo Baron puts it), “Under the totalitarian Soviet regime, the local population could neither as frequently nor as vigorously voice its opposition to the new colonization as did its counterparts, the Arab residents of Palestine under the British Mandate.” Birobidzhan today could be said to be precisely the sort of homeland the Palestinian Arabs might have wished for the Jews: a frozen swamp bounded by hostile Mongols, in which the Jews are far outnumbered by their historical enemy, the Ukrainians.
In our train ride across the Jewish Autonomous Republic, the station signs, whose Hebrew lettering is said to be this rat-trap’s last remaining claim to Jewishness, had reverted to Cyrillic. When the train stopped for five minutes at Bira Station, we rushed into a wretched buffet and in halting Yiddish asked the waitress for a pickled egg. She gave us a look of stony enmity and pointedly turned to help the Russian standing behind us.
There remained one vestige, however, of the glorious dream on which Birobidzhan had been founded. On the outskirts of Bira, on the sky-high posters featuring steel-limbed glowing workers standing shoulder to shoulder against a scarlet backdrop, the young people depicted were a little swarthy, the noses distinctly hooked. They bore no resemblance to anyone in the villages we passed, whose natives looked as Ukrainians always have: pallid, sharp-boned, straw-headed.
One day we crossed the top of Mongolia, and the landscape shivered and broke, opening the eye to a prairie studded with herdsmen on horseback: men with broad spoon faces and needle-thin eyes, fat-tailed sheep, scarlet poppies. It was harvest time, and after the Mongol plains, the Golden Age: expanses of blond crew-cut fields cropped by slow, molten rivers, and streaked with flashes of pastoral, bawdy and poignant: fat, bundled figures tumbling in the haycocks and chasing one another with scythes; dripping white swimmers dancing around a bonfire to keep warm; a party of gnome-like railway workers picnicking at the edge of the forest.
As for us, we told stories and tried to keep sober in a vehicle designed for insulated oblivion. At night, we could not sleep, but went out to smoke in the corridor, staring into hard-driven rain, into slick black forest, flickering lights from a soldier’s campfire, sudden gorges, a shocked illumination of army convoys and lone sentries. We fiddled with the shortwave radio, angling for broadcasts from a free country, and made do with the Peking Opera spirited up from the border through jammed airwaves. One night, at 3:00 A.M., we tuned into an English lesson for Chinese insomniacs.
And we tried to tease our guide for choice morsels from the Soviet board. This guide accompanied us throughout (we acquired a second with city visits). Nadezhda was a beauty, long round limbs, brown cow’s eyes, and stubborn pursed mouth, prominent nose. Nadezhda was also a sleeper, one of those groggy, lingering adolescents who go comatose when decisiveness is required. Narcolepsy is clearly one rational manner in which to deal with the impossible situation that is Soviet life; Nadezhda did not drink.
Her father had been a naval commander, her widowed mother a diabetic. (You can imagine what a Russian diabetic’s diet, even in Moscow, would consist of, where the only staple in ready supply is bonbons, and the only vegetables nine months of the year are white or blue.) Her only brother was an engineer on the Kola Peninsula, a high-pay death camp. Like most of the Arctic and desert “fliers” (short-shift migrant workers), he was waiting out a three-year sentence to return to Moscow. In the meantime, he begged Nadezhda to come visit him. “I get one vacation a year,” she said, with a shrug. “For that I would rather go to the Black Sea than the Arctic Circle.”
Nadezhda met her husband while they were both linguistics students at Moscow University. For several years now, she had been working at Intourist, a demanding job, while he was still a student, dawdling over a dissertation that sounded to her like a piece of cake. (The subject, however—the significance of phrasing in American newspapers—caused us to wonder if this husband of hers wasn’t a student rather in the sense of the Iranian students who held our Americans hostage, since few officials even at high-level institutes have access to the free press.)
Though initially the couple lived with his parents, Nadezhda had moved back in with her mother. After a few months of sneaking home every day after work to do the shopping for her mother, clean the house, and cook dinner before going back to her husband’s apartment, where she was treated like a guest, Nadezhda had found she missed her mother too much. But the estrangement from her husband did not prevent her from dogging him with an adoring and exasperated tenacity. “Every day I ask what is this doctorate about, again? When are you going to finish it? And he gets cross. All he does all day is ride his bicycle. Every morning he gets up and does his exercises for an hour, and then he goes off on his bicycle.”
And what was he doing this summer? While Nadezhda was obliged to lead our group through Siberia and Central Asia, the lowest circles of a Muscovite’s hell, what was this rambler doing, she wanted us to know? “Studying? No, not he. Off with his friends on a canoe trip down the Ural. I asked him, ‘Why can’t you pick a river closer to Moscow?’ ”
Being a devoted daughter and a discontented wife is not only a common but an almost inevitable feature of Soviet society. Later, we read an article posted on the wall in the hotel lobby in Novosibirsk, on the increasing breakup of Soviet marriages. The author’s tone was one of jokey dismay. The article was entitled, “The First Pancake Is Always Flat,” and his opening crack was that divorce in the Soviet Union is now so rampant that the application comes with the marriage license. Divorce is a particularly sore point in Siberia, where the rate is six to nine times higher than in Georgia or Armenia; it has been estimated that in Novosibirsk, one out of every two marriages hits the courtroom skids.
This malady is usually considered generational: one of the side-effects of a sustained period of peace and prosperity, when women think they can afford to be a little more remiss about husbands. But the Siberian author claimed that the primary reason for discord is woman’s emergence as the family breadwinner. Recent figures show that it is predominantly wives who initiate divorce proceedings today, and, more significantly, men who are the more inclined to remarry. (Already the figures for remarriage of divorced couples in the Soviet Union are abysmally low, suggesting that not only marriage but adultery, too, is going out of business.)
In the cities of European Russia, women do the work and men, unwilling to be seen failing in an unworthy competition, have suffered themselves to become bad children: improvident if sometimes charming layabouts. (I do not know if wife-beating, that favorite Russian sport from the time of the first travelers’ accounts, still reigns supreme, or whether, like bear-baiting, it has become impracticable.) One of the damages resulting from this marital imbalance is that women, fed up with their grasshopper husbands, tend to concentrate too much emotion, too many burdensome hopes and confidences upon their children, particularly as only children become the norm. On the other hand, children are the greatest joy in Soviet parents’ lives. In few other places in the world does one see children so adored and cosseted: a small son carried on the shoulder of a military man out for a night on the town with his friends, gangly twelve-year-old girls done up in short gauzy dresses and patent-leather buttonshoes sprawled across the laps of mothers who cannot take their hands off them.
Divorced mothers, once objects of pity or contempt, are now applauded for giving the good-for-nothing the bum’s rush. In confirmation of this contention, we had been told by the deputy chief of the Moscow Institute of Demography that unmarried mothers too have become increasingly accepted. As a matter of fact, she volunteered, there were several in that very institute. (I noticed at the time, though, that Nadezhda pursed her mouth and almost spat out the translation.) This tolerance, however, was being attributed to the drive to raise birthrates, and not to man-hating.
Our carriage was luxe, but once beyond the foreigners’ dining car and the string of third-class cars beyond it, one hit rock bottom. There, it smelled as if someone had tried to put out a fire with grain alcohol; beyond the booze was a stench of bandages and open sores.
Here in these cars were the workers—the Arctic slaves of the gold fields, the yellow-rainmakers of Djamboul, returning for the August break to Magnitogorsk, Kazan, or Omsk, for a free train-ride home is one of the shining perks of hard labor in the outlands. The cars were too cramped for everyone to sit upright, but four could lie horizontal all day reading comics and dozing, while two sailors played cards, or a mother dissected her child’s hair into innumerable lice-free zones.
Jogging costumes were the mufti of the civilian passengers—not the padded playsuits Americans know but something faded, black, and punitive-looking, wasting away into leggings with frayed footstraps. When the train stopped for station breaks and all the passengers clambered out to smoke harsh Bulgarian cigarettes and buy pickled blue eggs from the peddler-women, it looked like a leisurely jailbreak. The only incongruous detail was the men’s predilection for patent-leather platform shoes, which gave the hurried procession that bowlegged swagger one sees on the stage in Restoration plays.
Only one Russian was allowed to eat in the foreigners’ dining car, with its red leather banquettes and red nylon roses. This was the maître d’hôtel’s catamite, a nervy welterweight with a blue-black permanent wave: a bruised and brooding Valentino who, every morning, blazed a trail through an omelette, a veal cutlet, peas, and rice, with a hundred grams of vodka and a decanter of brandy to keep up his strength.
Rules or no rules, there is still bribery. One morning three black-marketeers came into the dining car: two Siberian truckers and their Moldavian toady, who had made their seasonal goldmine by smuggling and spying at the Chinese border and were determined to exhaust it before they got to Moscow.
There is an illusion in the West that under the auspices of the black market in the Soviet Union, one can subsist almost as well as anywhere else and keep one’s dignity. It is not true. One can live garishly, but not well, and at a price few Westerners would be willing to pay. It is one of the silent continuities in Russian existence that if the Soviet system could be said to serve any human creatures, it would be noblemen and criminals, two classes which Communism was intended to eliminate. Only party brats and crime kings have access to those things which, Soviets are implicitly taught, alone make life worth living. Only racketeers can travel more or less freely within the internal borders of the empire, but this freedom bears its responsibilities. The grand hoodlum with dollars enough to rub shoulders with American students and mobility enough to trade with Afghans across the border reports his findings dutifully.
Kolya, one of the two truckers, was from Sverd-lovsk—a factory town east of the Urals, distinguished for its death toll, having not only stiffed Nicholas and Alexandra but in recent years contracted a collective case of anthrax that put a unilateral freeze on much of its populace. One survivor, evidently, was this Kolya. It was his birthday and Edvard, the second trucker, had bought vodka, cognac, and Georgian champagne for the entire car.
Edvard, also a Siberian, was the gang leader, a balding blond with sun-scorched skin and a drunk’s smarts: he introduced himself initially as Volodya and then forgot his alias mid-sentence.
The Moldavian had no name at all and was forbidden by his companions to talk to us. Moldavians are the pieds noirs of European Russia, despised as only the once-free can be despised by born slaves. Once they were part of Rumania. Once Rumania was part of the West. What I am now, you too will be, grins the death’s head. Kolya and Edvard might see it differently if Soviets were taught history: Moldavia has been gang-banged successively by Scythians, Kievan princes, Tatars, Turks, and, in recent years, those obliging good old boys, the Germans and Russians. Siberians, on the other hand, have always enjoyed a certain latitude: after all, the old chestnut goes, what can they do to you—you’re already in Siberia.
Edvard was pouring vodka and brandy at once into our tea glasses—the cocktail which ensued we called the Gravedigger. It is best drunk at nine in the morning, and at one gulp, as we did, with rousing toasts to ease the flow.
Toasting in the Soviet Union is a fine medium for sounding one’s drinking companions’ mission. Theirs was readily apparent; they were two-way transmitters, programmed to talk peace. I was disappointed at first to hear these desperadoes mouth milquetoast propaganda in their brandied pleas for disarmament, but I suppose it was a cheap price for them to pay to a system designed both to indulge and to utilize the outlaw’s natural propensities: a rare if not unique union of Soviet supply and demand.
When the Moldavian finally opened his mouth, we saw why he hadn’t been allowed to speak. The Moldavian had done his military service in Dushanbe, the capital of Tadjikistan, he volunteered: a euphemistic shorthand for combat in Afghanistan. He confirmed that the losses have been far higher than the Soviet government will admit; that the guerrillas are holy terrors who dress up as women at night and carry knives under their skirts; but that Russian soldiers, if not as resourceful, are dogged. And the Central Asian (i.e., Muslim) conscripts? He made as if to spit. We asked him about the Russian concern that high Muslim birthrates and a declining European population will create a predominantly Central Asian militia by the end of the century. He had not heard of this quandary but he understood that it might be a considerable worry. Was the fear then justified that Muslims sent to fight in Afghanistan and the Middle East would go over to the enemy side? The Moldavian was scornful. “No, it isn’t fanaticism that is the problem, it is cowardice. Uzbeks and Tadjiks are just great corn-fed hicks who turn tail at the sight of fire.”
Now Edvard, who was so drunk even his companions could not understand his Russian, decided that he, too, wanted to talk politics. But Kolya had begun acting up, and crossed even the extended borders of bribery. He had taken out his wad of twenty-rouble notes and begun to tear them up. The waitress rushed over to our table, and prized the red roubles from Kolya’s loose fingers. “Get out. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she told him, and pushed the three of them out of the compartment. He was ashamed. Thereafter, Edvard and Kolya took their slop hard-class like everyone else, and slunk past us in the corridors, eyes averted. Only the Moldavian sidekick, with an atavistic resilience, laughed at us, and shook his head.
One night, under a horned orange moon, we passed Lake Baikal, with its 108 strains of extinct fish: a milky sea, luminous and portentous as if it might turn to blood or cough up monsters that were minerals of flesh.
Even in daylight this was a landscape of dreams. The settlements were hewn log cabins with enormous pale-blue shutters. From a train window, one glimpsed fragments of a ramshackle chinoiserie: fretted summerhouses and weird pagodas rising from a compost heap, granaries and prison watchtowers that were brick Towers of Babel in a Moorish style. Each sizable town thrust forward its municipal garden upon the tracks: a gory herbacious border and a statue of Lenin. These statues attested to some hagiographical quirk I had not yet encountered. The state sculptors had portrayed Lenin’s progress across Siberia as a kind of gastronomic tour: for every verst he gained a kilo, until, by Petrovskiiy Zavod, the Decembristville of Eastern Siberia, the exiled Lenin was practically a molten cannonball.
This was Siberia proper: the idiot child of Russian history, alternately kept in the attic and starved, and then glutted with ruinously high expectations, in a continuum of cynical disregard. Like the rich man in City Lights who covers the tramp in drunken ravishments and avowals of brotherhood that stop just short of a loan, and never recognizes him the next day, so, sporadically, European Russia has visited its Asiatic orphan with plans for its reclamation. Visionary nights are succeeded by the next morning’s cold stare, and after a feast of chicanery, slavery, boasting, splurging, and shambles, Siberia goes back into the doghouse.
Under most of the Old Regime, Siberia was considered nothing more than a chilly pen for dreamers. From time to time, the land would be scourged with a plague of prophets and prospectors like the scientist and scholar M.V. Lomonosov, whose slogan, “The might of Russia will grow through Siberia,” the Soviets later were to adopt. Just as witnesses of the Black Death felt that destruction on such a scale could only have been delivered by the hand of God and with a purpose, so Russians would periodically speculate on possible justifications for the existence of Siberia.
In the late 19th century, hopes of the liberal and reforming elite converged with economic and strategic necessity. The need to counter Chinese immigration from the South and to shore up against the Japanese threat from the East, to supply European industries with raw materials and military installations on the Pacific with food and materiel—in short, to prepare for war—made the development of Siberia pressing. It was the Trans-Siberian Railroad which effected this transformation.
Chekhov, crossing Siberia in 1890, on the eve of the railroad’s construction, could, with some expectation of seeing his prophecies fulfilled, gaze across the Yenisei River at the youthful city of Krasnoyarsk, and see in it a new Jerusalem rising on the far shore, a pearl of the permafrost that would redeem the entire continent from its malaise. “On the banks of the Yenisei, life began with a moan, but it will end with such prowess as we haven’t even dreamed of. . . I stood there and thought: what an ample, bold, intelligent life will one day brighten these shores!”
But a closer examination of the new frontier left Chekhov disenchanted. The Russian settlers were a sweet-tempered but benighted lot, overpowered by an irremediable fatalism. According to the peasant he met at Krasnoy Yar, they were human beings only on their birth certificates, and in truth no more than flies or mosquitoes, who could neither fish nor steal nor seek for their souls, but only paint pretty toys for their children and drink themselves dead or stupid. As for the natives, they seemed to have been equal deadweights on the airlift to progress, shamanistically averse to angering water-spirits by damming floods, unwilling to offend trees by felling them. The new cities Chekhov inspected were already weary with a restless torpor and offered nothing in the way of culture but filthy public baths for the family, a bordello, a few wretched tea houses. Curiously, Chekhov summed up in his lament what was to prove an abiding featuring of the New Siberia. Raw without vitality, raddled without experience, Siberian cities don’t grow, they shoot up and then rot.
After five days of seeing only sodden birch punctuated by sacked granaries turned to watchtowers, we reached the outskirts of Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia—the Paris of Siberia, they call it—and a city of one-and-a-half million.
Having worked ourselves up for some Las Vegas of the Taiga, we could not but be disappointed by what was unearthed before us—not a new frontier at all, but a ducking into the horsepond of Old Russia. Novosibirsk has undergone a succession of gamey if somewhat spectral half-lives. It was delivered by slave labor, a dropping of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. From being another whistlestop for convicts, the town experienced a brief skirmish with gentility around the turn of the century. In the 1914 Baedeker, Novonikolaevsk is mentioned as a resort where sportsmen can lodge before plunging into the Altai Mountains in pursuit of ibex and wapiti.
At the outbreak of World War II, the city suffered a second heavy-metal baptism, serving simultaneously as an evacuation site for the industries of civilized Russia, as an open hospital for wounded soldiers, and as a transit prison whose inmates could be seen in the open trenches of the city’s main boulevards, engaged in a program of massive construction. This cementing of human devastation and technological triumph determined the city’s character to come.
The chief jewel of the war effort was the Novosibirsk Opera House, which characteristically was conceived as a Palace of Science and then changed its mind. In Mexico, there is a rasher of municipal buildings of a particularly indigestible floridity called Porfirian, after the dictator (Porfirio Diaz) in whose image they were cast; today, Mexicans can afford to deride the lugubrious frippery of these candy-box mausoleums of a man who kept their grandparents prisoners of want and terror. The Novosibirsk Opera House, the largest in Siberia, is built in what might be called the Josephan style: a Stalinist imitation of the Third Reich translations of imperial Rome. It is a style which in Albert Speer’s hands was perhaps slyly parodic, and by its very monstrosity of scale undercut the bloated self-image it seemed to confirm.
As for this particular rehashing of the imperial theme, this magnified copy of a hyperbole, it would be funny if it did not make one angry. For what Russian could afford to be amused, looking up at this mile-high sledgehammer of Stalinism, shining example of an architecture whose aim is not only to avoid any concessions to human needs, any tributes to human aspirations, but to diminish, humiliate, and wipe them out, by so clearly aligning itself with a giant race of destroyers?
Like much of Siberia, Novosibirsk was spawned by war-Communism, and has been irremediably deformed by it. Coming to Novosibirsk in 1944, Harrison Salisbury recalls being assailed by “an endless stream of the limbless, the halt, the blind, the bandaged, and the scarred. If you wanted to see the human toll of war, Novosibirsk was the place to go in those days.”
In the major cities of European Russia, the visitor is faced with a vivid allegory of the aftermath of the world war, in a boulevard pageant of wooden legs and gaudy medals. Novosibirsk, however, is something else again: evidence of the war which the Soviet Union has waged against its own people, a city of the young who have got their wounds on the battlefields of malpractice. Whether it is birth defects, or the uneradicated effects of early malnutrition, or more recent casualties of unsafe industrial conditions and drunkenness at work, Novosibirsk today is an aspic in which is preserved a wide range of disfigurements modern health care should either have prevented or have relieved without a trace.
This impression of the city as having retained something of the flavor of the hospital barracks, along with a potent shot of the medieval almshouse, sat uneasily with the Siberia Soviet officials were selling us. Our vision of an Asiastic Lourdes was countered with theirs of a boom town still wet behind the ears and bursting at its spanking new seams. Indeed there are evidences that a genuine boom did occur throughout the 60′s and early 70′s, but since then a blight seems to have fallen over the city. The flood of immigration has abated, the population is no longer growing rapidly but merely turning over, and the rush of construction appears to have come to a standstill.
In a 1978 copy of National Geographic we saw a photograph of Novosibirsk’s almost completed Intourist Hotel. An Intourist Hotel is an acquisition of deep significance. In a country wholly dependent on foreign currency, yet two-thirds of which is barred to foreigners, any city that makes the tourist grade is assured a trickling of meat and butter and winter coats in the stores which the rest of the country, save the military, is denied. Yet five years after this issue of National Geographic had appeared, the Intourist Hotel was still the same skeleton of steel. The same held true for the Metro. According to Soviet planning, every city over a million must have a subway. The Novosibirsk Metro, which the 1978 magazine had described as nearly completed, was still a hole in the ground, and further construction seemed to have been abandoned as impractical. Our guide, like an aging beauty lopping years off her age, pretended that construction had only begun two years ago.
The truth is that although Russia first penetrated this waste in the 16th century, it has never managed to inhabit it fully, to cultivate and industrialize the area as economic and strategic dictates would require. The causes of this failure of will are not solely climatic. It is not the land alone that is unyielding.
The active Russian workforce has consistently refused to emigrate to Siberia of its own free will. The only way the Trans-Siberian Railroad ever got built was by slave labor, and though the feat has lost something of its luster by now, it has not yet been equaled. Today, mass deportation is out of favor, and the Soviet leadership has been attempting the reclamation of Siberia with a mongrel crew of Komsomol press-gangs, military releases, and drifters attracted by high wages, short contracts, and relative freedom—you don’t need a residence permit to live in the pioneer cities. These cities have remained fly-by-night company towns of extreme youth and extreme hardship, shored up with deceptive signals of luxury. Nothing grows here, so staples must be imported; the imported goods in the stores are overpriced, measly, and in fact signs not of luxury but of a truly chilling impoverishment: canned orange juice from Calcutta. For the rest, the frontier towns are characterized by raw corruption, hair-trigger violence, and rampant alcoholism (the cause given in half of all marital breakups and two-thirds of all accidents at work). Among the other strains that come with the territory, couples still often have to live in single-sex dormitories. Unsurprisingly, despite the incentives, workers can rarely be induced to renew their two-or three-year contracts, and enlistment has been flagging. These cities of the plain neither thrive nor turn to ghost towns, but sink into a callow decrepitude.
Yet the legend of a grand Siberian destiny remains. The Old Regime’s progressive plans for opening up the frontiers came to fruition with the construction of the railroad, but the New Regime’s business with Siberia is not yet done, and it has remained for the Soviet leadership, with its ingenious and titanic imagination, to take up the larger challenge implicit in Lomonosov’s prophecy. The region is rich in raw materials and mineral resources, and the Soviet plan is to find a way of extracting and processing them on the spot: a Herculean task, which would eat up capital and labor which the Soviet Union does not possess. Nevertheless, Central Planning professes to believe in some alchemical quick fix, and as a result the combined brain power of the USSR has been diverted into cooking up some scheme that will convert the world’s largest waste into the world’s most productive region.
The development of Siberia is in this sense a microcosm of the larger Soviet fiction. The leadership demands the nonexistent, the nonexistent is fruitlessly sought for and, since it must be produced, invented—whereupon the fiction of actual implementation ensues: a perpetually mounting structure of deceptions, since the imaginary project’s realization must be accompanied both by estimated production figures and by figures indicating a fantastical overfulfillment of the previously projected estimates. The development of Siberia, not in itself an impossible task, thus becomes a game as cynically intricate in its pretended expectations and as devastating in its totality as Democratic Kampuchea’s plan to build a steel industry that would rival South Korea’s by inducing its peasants to melt down their pots and pans in their back yards.
The foundation and source of all the state’s hopes for the development of Siberia is named Akademgorodok, the Science City. In 1957, under the Khrushchev enlightenment, Akademgorodok was founded on the banks of a newborn dam, some forty kilometers from Novosibirsk. It was to be a compound of some twenty-five gleaming citadels, enclosing 35,000 scientists and 7,000 understudies. United in this padded city, the army of salvation was to find a scheme that, harnessing the region’s force of thermonuclear plants, hydroelectric works, and dams, would unlock Siberia’s natural wealth and process it cheaply on the spot. In addition, the science city was to come up with a hundred important new agricultural developments every year to be introduced into the Soviet economy.
In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures whereby . . . one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last forever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundredfold more than they do at present, with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection, and in the meantime the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins and the people without food or clothes.
The writer is Jonathan Swift, in a description of the Academy of Lagado.
The Akademgorodok scheme was skunked at the outset by Central Planning’s carrying-on like a sailor on payday, insisting that any such project would require a standing army of 40,000 scientists. Were such a workforce available, it would still be a terrific task to judge the correct proportions of slave labor and voluntary service necessary to fuel it. How do you get 40,000 of the country’s most distinguished talents—or, for that matter, even its workhorse academics—out to Siberia, how do you get them to stay, and, while there, how do you exact their maximum creativity? Slave labor has built many of the wonders of the world, but as far as we know, it has designed few of them, and it is uncertain how much fancy brain work prisoners can be induced to yield for the state.
It is true that Andrei Nikolaievich Tupolev designed some of the Soviet Union’s World War II fighter planes from a specially constructed prison-laboratory in the 30′s. But would Sakharov have designed the hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union from house-arrest in Gorky? And could a comparable feat be effected with 40,000 scientists instead of one? In any case, Central Planning decided to opt for the ungrateful task of providing material incentives that would keep this distinguished workforce, plus the 2,000 visiting academics expected every year, in permanent and willing exile.
The size of its faculty has fallen short of the state’s original projections. Akademgorodok now boasts a staff of 23,000, of whom an untold number must be floorsweepers. I would be curious to know whether the quality of work has benefited by the rewards accorded it in advance, or whether the compound has knotted itself up in the professional jealousies and intrigues, the creative droughts, the internecine adulteries, that afflict other academic communities.
And of Akademgorodok’s original two-pronged charter, how much has come true? Some indication of how the larger scheme has progressed can be found in Gosplan and in the Academy of Science’s 1971-1990 plan which, acknowledging labor shortages and high costs, decided that it would be more practicable to transport Siberia’s raw materials to be processed in the West, as had always been done in the past, than to lure people out to Siberia and build the necessary urban infrastructures. Does this mean that Novosibirsk and its satellite city are going out of business? As for this year’s developments, we were relieved to hear that the Institute for Genetic Scientology had succeeded in breeding twenty-seven shades of mink. Jonathan Swift would have been proud.
We went out to Akademgorodok on a Sunday afternoon. Academic communities have certain universal features, and this once experimental and now rather shopworn compound looked much like any university setting in Wisconsin twenty years ago: the muddy lake whose drab beach was littered with gangs of female teenyboppers, faculty brats in bikinis and white flesh, carrying enormous radios; the large dilapidated white clapboard houses set in the pines, their front yards littered with children’s bicycles. (Ten-room houses, these, whose equivalent floor space would house twenty-five people in Moscow; children’s bicycles, catering to a depraved desire to have one’s legs reach from seat to pedal, bicycles which the child-cyclists we observed in the rest of Siberia, standing upright on a rusty man’s one-speed, would not even have recognized, any more than they would an elephant small enough to fit in one’s palm.)
It was a muggy afternoon, and the oppressiveness of the community’s air of enforced Sunday idleness made Akademgorodok all the more a successful facsimile of normality. The shopping mall was crammed with families and goods. There were household goods which, although of a quality which would be both meager and unacceptably baroque by European working-class standards, were items unavailable elsewhere in the Soviet Union: orange-juice squeezers, toast racks, bread boards, and kitchen knives. There was the Soviet equivalent of the duty-free counter with imported booze and filter-tip knock-offs with names like “Stewardess” and “Ronhill” from Zagreb, Duana, and Ivornica. There was a children’s department whose floor consisted entirely of spindly baby carriages and mammoth panda bears in lurid pinks and St. Patrick’s Day greens. Side by side with such folly were the large tin pots which are an indicator of housing without running water.
The stores were crowded, mostly with foreigners and day-trippers from Novosibirsk who had come by bus to load up for the week. The residents were unmistakable. Whereas the working class had got up in its Sunday best—the men in dark suits, the women in beehives, and the little girls in frilly party dresses and large gauze bows in their hair—it was an academic privilege to be slatternly on a Sunday: husbands with a faint hippie gaudiness to their gloom, pushing shopping carts loaded with vermouth and washing powder, the wives colorless and hard to the touch (in Chekhov’s words). The children were the only ones we saw in the Soviet Union who wore glasses.
Gleb, our city guide in Novosibirsk, was a shoddy Soviet copy of a West European type of the pampered lefty, a perpetual student, something of a swinger: rose-tinted aviator shades, pallid hair tightly crimped around a pasty face, and a beer belly billowing over the confines of his bleached jeans. Too old and well-paid to be alienated, he had an air of unrelieved boredom and cynicism that was exaggerated by an Americanistic accent that twanged like a jew’s-harp. Gleb was patently drunk. When we remarked upon his wonderful mid-afternoon drunkenness, Nadezhda did not miss a beat. “Oh yes, there was a girl in the Beriozhka shop whose birthday it was today. No doubt there was some champagne at lunch.” The cover was so instantaneous it might have been an Intourist stock response.
Also, Gleb knew nothing. Any questions out of the ordinary he fielded to the driver, in a flagrant breach of Intourist decorum. Always, once out of the major tourist centers, there is a sweet collusion between driver and guide: like a pair of good cops, they work together under high pressure. Both are finely trained and fluent in the tourist’s tongue, but neither lets on that they have ever met before; one gets to be the know-it-all, while the other is invariably silent and pretends to know no English. I wondered if they ever traded off. Throughout our trip, our attempts to trick various drivers into answering had been duds. I was beginning to feel like Gogol’s madman clerk, sneaking up on lap-dogs to catch them in human conversation, when at last our efforts were amply rewarded in Petya, Gleb’s sidekick. Petya was a speed demon. Barreling down an empty highway on our way to the airport, he managed to break the van—a Hungarian make appropriately called “Ikarus.” When I got out and wandered over to the side of the road, Petya came up to me, holding up a long piece of frazzled World War II tubing. “Don’t worry,” he said genially in English. “Just relax, relax.”
Official Soviet tours are interesting for their tension between what they wish to show you and what is inadvertently revealed. A massive attempt on the scale of a perpetual war effort is made to maintain a facsimile of normality—a moving picture of normality, one might say, since normality entails progress, or at least change. The strain of this war effort is so costly that the state can only afford to Potemkinize one-third of its cities, leaving the rest on the dark side of the moon.
We got a feel for the incidental tolls tourism takes, in seeing our guide Nadezhda come down to breakfast every morning with increasingly black circles under her eyes and realizing that in addition to our daily airplane flight, the city tour, the academic meeting, the visit to the Palace of Economic Achievement, and the evening’s circus, she had to write back to Moscow a nightly report on all we had said and done that day. And on top of that, there were the oral reports delivered daily to the local police bureau. We sometimes saw her being led away by these bully boys while we were taken off by the local guide: Nadezhda would give us a snappish or at times an anxiously demonstrative farewell, as if she might never be seeing us again.
Now Intourist guides are their country’s domestic ambassadors, drawn from a small and privileged elite, and as such only peripheral casualties of the war effort to make the Soviet Union look like its leadership’s received notions of what a great power ought to look like. What was arresting was the frequency with which hideous discrepancies in the illusion not only occurred but went unnoticed by our guides, because Russian vision is too incurably skewed to recognize what could seem unusual or even shocking to Western eyes.
This alienness is something that has struck foreign visitors since the first Englishman touring Muscovy in the 16th century judged its natives more barbarous than the Irish, and the Russian people themselves, in fluctuations of pride and shame, seem to have been no less firmly convinced of their alienness from the rest of humanity. In the last century, the Russian elite was schooled abroad, imported its outlook, and acquired a gentlemanly sameness of surface. Today, when national distinctions have been further homogenized by ease of transport and communication, the Soviet Union has jammed its own airwaves from the West. By now ordinary Russians can have only a limited notion of what a democracy tastes or smells like, and you must constantly remind yourself that as eminent a figure as Andropov has never set foot on non-Communist soil. Where could he have acquired his tastes for Glenn Miller and imported Scotch, if indeed they are Andropov’s tastes and not, as seems more likely, the softening touch of the state portraitist? Only by confiscation, from having “overseen” American cargo shipped into Murmansk during the lend-lease program.
Leninism conceives of no life beyond the scorched earth on which socialism is to be built. With no palpable ideals and little understanding of the opposition’s, the current leaders of the Soviet state find themselves unable to flesh out their skeleton formulations with any alternative reality half so full-bodied, so various, and so beguiling as that of Western democracy. Is there such a thing as belief in the leadership among the people, we asked a Soviet dissident in the United States. He smiled. “The Russian people cannot cease to feel important and proud when they remember, as they do at least once a day, that, useless hulks that they are, they have nevertheless managed to spread themselves across one-sixth of the earth’s surface.”
We were in a dance palace in Novosibirsk on a Saturday night. Swarming outside the multistoried mammoth of marble and concrete, in the lobby, and on the broad staircase leading up to the main dining room and dance floor was a throng of cheap hustlers, undercover agents, smugglers, army officers, reeling Mongol tribesmen, and young boys puking drunk. Deals were being cut, bottles of liquor passed surreptitiously, brawls, and amorous lunges.
Inside, we stood leaning over the railings of a minstrel’s gallery, staring down at the dance floor. There was a tribe of Uzbek marketeers, whose women got up and danced by themselves with a lot of heel-clicking and snapping of the fingers to a rock-and-roll at once self-pitying and salacious. The men, much older and shorter, squat toughies with stick-out ears and bronzed pugnacious faces like arrowheads, came up to them for an instant, eyed them with contempt, and strutted off to get more booze. There was a subdued wedding party, the groom very young and drunk, and seemingly sunk in misgivings. A small solitary war hero with a crewcut and pale idiot leer sidled up to the party and began to sing them a cracked love song of an unbelievable melancholy. There was a prematurely bald army officer dining with a red-haired tart he had never met before but was extremely anxious to be liked by, and he got increasingly anxious as her eyes darted about the room searching out relief. There was a blond brick-faced air-force officer seated with a table of henchmen, whom we watched work his way silently and coldly through soup, two cutlets, potatoes, peas, and a bottle of vodka. The henchmen neither ate nor drank.
I watched this spectacle and I thought of such a people expanding across the earth’s surface, colonizing the civilized nations of the world. And I thought of Edouard Goldstücker, a Czech Communist and one-time apologist for the Soviet regime, who on seeing a man come out of a Moscow liquor shop, down a vodka bottle at one go, and walk straight into a lamppost cutting his head open, realized that he could no longer blame such everyday sights on vestiges of an Old Russia the infant state had yet to cast off: “This was not czarism anymore; it was the great tragedy which had happened to us in Central Europe. We became dominated by a regime which is historically backward, much more backward than we are. This had very rarely happened in history that the colonizing power was historically backward compared to the colonized.”