Denouement in Reykjavik

We had a disagreement during supper. Joseph had misjudged me. He said if I’d write a letter nominating Gorbachev for the Nobel prize for Peace, someone would write a letter nominating me for the Nobel prize in Literature.
I’d have been happy to write the letter but I was insulted by the idea that first of all, I could be bribed and, secondly, that I was so vain that I would think that I was anything more than a minor Canadian writer. I don’t handle hurt feelings well and, instead of letting the suggestion pass, I hit back by saying maybe Joseph should nominate Brodsky. Joseph looked like he was going to choke on his caviar. We’d hardly spoken to each other for the rest of the meal.
On the way back to the hotel, Joseph said, I’ll check to see if Ivan is there. He can’t be trusted to get things right. Maybe he’s not arranged your train tickets properly and your visa is running out. At the hotel, Joseph had gone ahead and come back immediately.
“He’s not here. Go to your room in case he phones. I’ll start checking to find him. There’s only an hour. This is very serious. You could be in a great deal of trouble. Do not leave until I call.” I went to my room, unsettled by the unexpected conflict, and finished my packing. I was, suddenly worried, remembering all the warning I’d been given before I left Canada. All the relatives who’d said the Checka or the KGB or the GRU would get me. That I would disappear into the Gulag and glasnost and peristroika were nothing but a trick.
I thought about the day when I was in my office at the university and someone had knocked on my door. I’d opened it and a man with brown hair and brown moustache had said he wanted to talk to me. As he came into the room, he flashed his ID but so quickly I couldn’t read the card. “My name is Brown,” he said. “I’m with SIS. I went and sat behind my desk. He took a chair opposite me. SIS is not supposed to come onto Canadian campuses.
“We heard,” he said, “you are going to Ukraine.” I nodded once. “You had a meeting here, in Victoria, with a Joseph Rapunski.”
“He’s a journalist. He was with a group of musicians.”
“That’s his cover. He’s a KGB major. He’s their minder. His job is to see no one defects. How did you meet?”
“He works for a magazine in Kiev. They publish my work.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go. There’ll be traps. Sparrows.” When he saw I didn’t understand, he said, “Young girls. Pretty girls. Ballerinas who have to make an extra dollar or two. Photographs in compromising positions.”
“I’m a bachelor,” I replied. “They’d be trophy photos.”
He went very still. “A smart alec,” he said. “You don’t want to be a smart alec with these people. Your Joseph is a KGB major.”

I sat there and didn’t say anything. Finally, he stood up. “Have a good trip,” he said.
We’d had a little party the evening before I left and the next door neighbor said, “Look for a good Ukrainian girl to marry, Bill. One who’ll stay home and who can cook.”
A friend of theirs had gone to the Ukraine years before and when he’d got back to Canada, he kneeled down and kissed the ground. He’d wanted to visit the village from which his people came. Now, I had been told everything had changed.
I began to pace, something I had not done for a long time, then I remembered what Olga and Margarita had both said, that Ivan never left anything to chance, that everything was checked three times because when he started the job, he’d made a mistake and he never wanted that to happen again. They’d also said if there was a mistake it wasn’t my problem. The hammer would come down on Ivan. He’d lose the meals he loved so much and the first class travel and entertainment. I picked up my bag and went out into the hall. There was no baba in her little room. I slipped down the back stairs. I caught Joseph and Ivan sitting in the Intourist Office, talking and laughing. When Joseph saw me he looked shocked and quickly said, “I have just found him. I was going to call you.”
“Good,” I said. I ignored the empty brandy glasses sitting on the table and said to Ivan,. “Joseph thought you might have got lost.”
Ivan looked away and his face flushed the way it always did when he was uncomfortable. We went to the cash bar in the foyer and Joseph bought us all double brandies. I took a sip of mine, then put it down.
At the platform, Joseph said good bye. My annoyance was overshadowed by a feeling that we wouldn’t meet again, not the three of us, that one of us was going to die. Sometimes the future comes to me like this and it makes me afraid. I thought of the good things about Joseph. How I owed him this trip. After we’d had coffee together at a mutual friend’s house and he’d returned to Ukraine, he’d called me in the middle of the night and said, “Bill, it’s Joseph. You want to come to Ukraine.” I’d agreed and in a couple of weeks, a letter of invitation had arrived. I thought it was Joseph who would meet me at the airport, who would show me around but it was Ivan who was in charge. Now, grateful for a trip of a lifetime, I said, “Don’t work too hard. I don’t want to come back and hear that you’ve died of a heart attack.”
“No, no, don’t say that. That’s bad luck.” If he’d dared, I think he would have crossed himself.
It turned out it wasn’t Joseph. It was Ivan. After he dropped me off, he picked up a group of Americans at Shermetyvo. He’d toured them around for two weeks, then took them back to the airport. He then caught the train back to Kiev by himself–when I read the letter I’d got telling me of the circumstances of his death, I could hear the roar of Moscow station, the thousands of feet on the floor sounding like surf, the lines of people moving like a dark current, the piles of brilliant Egyptian oranges being sold by Gorbachev’s new entrepreneurs, and Ivan’s short, wide shape and worn coat, moving ahead of me–and had been killed on the train. The letter and the obituary I got in the mail made it sound like an accident. But one night late the phone rang and it had been someone wanting help with a visiting writer from the USSR. I’d mentioned Ivan, how he’d been killed in an accident and the caller said, it wasn’t that way. Ivan had been murdered. After I put the phone down, I wondered who would dare murder a travel guide. He wasn’t, I was sure, just a travel guide but like Joseph, had a second career. When they were together they were equals, neither gave the other orders. I assumed  that meant he was also a KGB major.
For the next few days I thought about the train a lot, remembering the compartments with their stainless steel bars which locked the doors, the passageway, the conductress who kept such a close eye on things that the first time I used the washroom at the end of the coach and had knocked on the he wrong compartment door, she’d come flying down the passageway, saying, “Nyet, nyet!” The only place he could be murdered without witnesses was in a washroom or in his own compartment.
Ivan, though, had suffered from loneliness and, late in the evening, sometimes visited the day coaches. Good people sit back there, he said. I understood that. I, too, had shoved my way up from the working class but the cost was never feeling like I belonged. It is always like I’m just visiting and never really know the rules or the language.
Ivan was new at his job. “Good in Spanish,” he’d said, during that first taxi ride from the airport, “good Russian, good Ukrainian but only school English.” He’d been nervous about his English. “Maybe you want someone with better English.” He sounded like he hoped it wasn’t true.
“Your English is better than my Ukrainian so I won’t complain.”
The good Spanish came from four years in Cuba. In some minor job. I knew that because when I’d asked him about Castro, he’d only seen him passing in a car.
He had difficulty setting limits. He over ate and although he said, “Gorbachev says no to drunkards.” and refused to drink alone, he still liked to drink. Too much food, too much liquor had stretched his clothes tight. I ran up the stairs leading to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. Half-way up, Ivan had to stop to rest. I ran down to see if he was all right. His face was purple. His breathing was labored and it was five minutes before his colour was normal..
On the last day in Moscow, just before we left for the airport, I took everything I didn’t need for the return trip and piled them on the table and said these are for you. Do what you want with them. I’d meant it as a favor. I thought he might make enough to replace his worn black coast.
After the late night phone call, I often sat in the kitchen thinking about the fact that I’d got part of it right on the platform in Kiev. Be careful, I should have said to Ivan. Sit with your back to wall. Slow down on the food. His marriage was over but his wife and he still had to live in the same apartment. Get a girlfriend, I should have told him, on your travels,  so loneliness doesn’t drive you down train passageways late at night. I put the obituary in my scrapbook, along with my pictures of Kiev.
That would have been the end of it except the Canadian Embassy in Oslo called and asked me to go to Iceland for four days. The first night in Reykjavik, I found myself walking with the cultural attaché through the pouring rain, looking for a restaurant which seemed to constantly elude us. The attaché’s specialty was the Eastern block so I asked him who would dare kill a travel guide?
The attaché was thin and dark and was trying to salvage his umbrella which the wind had turned inside out.
“Criminals,” he said. “Organized crime is a serious problem. The soldiers coming back from Afghanistan are well organized and heavily into the black market. Something that’s worth only a few dollars here is worth a lot there. They’ll kill you for our shoes.”
I thought about the pile of razors and chocolates and writing materials and clothes I’d piled on the table. Three shirts. I wondered, in a job where scarce goods came as gifts, if a man who liked his food too much might not drift into dangerous waters.
“Political?” I asked.
“Something personal, more likely. An argument, perhaps. People get killed for crazy reasons.”
The rain was sheeting down and we were both huddled under an awning. The attaché shoved the umbrella into a garbage container. I studied the neon signs across the street. The restaurant for which we had been searching was directly opposite. We had passed it twice without seeing the entrance. Sometimes, one misses the obvious.
“One has to ask though, why they want you to think he’s dead,” the attaché said.
The wind suddenly shifted, driving the rain sideways, soaking us with ice cold water. I gasped with the shock and wished I’d stayed inside.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said.

New Years in Kiev, episode 5

 The Cultural Palace( Жовтневий палац, Zhovtnevy palats)
We’d been to Uzgorod and Lviv and returned to Kiev for New Year’s. The weather had been mild and when we walked out, the golden domes of the cathedrals glowed in the winter sun.
It was a time of new beginnings, of hope, for Peristroika and Glasnost were still new, and everyone thought democracy and good times were just around the corner. You could feel hope. It filled the air,it rose from the people walking down Kreschatik Street.
Ivan took me to a cultural palace to celebrate. Every seat was filled. Beside us were rows of WWII veterans in their uniforms with medals across their chests. These were the survivors. Thirteen million of their comrades were killed in the battlefield, died in hospitals, died after the war from their injuries, were lost in combat or died as prisoners of war. Fourteen million civilians died. Eight million civilians were killed in Ukraine. I wondered if any of the soldiers had been at Leningrad where one million people died, many from starvation and freezing to death. I wondered if I could share their memories, what horrors I would see.
I expected the evening would be filled with young women in crocheted blouses and skirts, red boots, with flowers in their hair. With young men with their embroidered shirts and blue, baggy pants, doing impossible tricks as they danced. I expected to hear the balilaika.
Instead, the stage was taken over by a group of rock musicians in torn blue jeans, playing extremely loud music, doing their best to imitate what they thought was American success. The torn blue jeans were faked, of course, a statement from America about the rebellion of the over-urbanized, over-privileged middle class children of upwardly mobile parents.
On the way out, after the concert, I accidently put my chapka on backwards. On the escalator, a lot of people had a good laugh at the Canadian who couldn’t get his hat on right.
The weather was mild. Ivan and I walked back to my hotel with our coats open. There was a table reserved for me in the dining room with a bottle of wine and chocolates. “Wine, chocolates, music, beautiful women.” He waved his hand at the room packed with people already partying. “The rest is up to you.”
I sat there watching the crowd, in the heart of the heart of a country and people I love, but after awhile I went back to my room. I lay on the bed. I couldn’t get the image of the old soldiers, row on row of them, their medals polished, their uniforms pressed, watching a group of young people screaming into microphones, jumping about the stage, deliberately wearing torn clothing, out of my mind. I thought about the medals and what they meant and I wondered if the old soldiers wondered how what was happening on stage could be the outcome of all the horror and sacrifice.

Glass in Uzgorod, Ukraine, episode 3

Ruins of Nevytsky Castle

The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.
The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.
We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.
During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.
As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.
In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.
Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.
In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.
“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”
It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.
Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.
Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.
“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”
Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were.  His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.
We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.

The Oranges of Peristroika, episode 2


Moscow station. Moscow station, I kept thinking It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was beyond anything I’d ever imagined. A maelstrom of people
Ivan had said, “Stay right behind me. Don’t lose sight of me.” Then we’d plunged into a turbulence of bodies and suitcases and boxes tied with rope. The noise was overwhelming. Afghanistan was not finished then and not since my childhood had I seen so many soldiers. I’d been born the year W.W.II started. There’d been an air base two mile south of town where they were trailing plots for the Battle of Britain so I’d grown up with all these men in uniform being around. But it hadn’t been like this. I was shocked by how young the soldiers were. Some still had the smooth faces of children, the gangly, disjointed bodies of adolescence.
The station seemed filled with darkness. The dark, heavy coats, the dark chapkas, the dark shoes. Here and there a red babushka glowed like a poppy in a dark field. Then all of a sudden there were the oranges, a pyramid of colour, crates of Egyptian oranges piled high. At home I took oranges for granted, stuffing a few into a plastic bag, without thinking about it. But here they glowed a bright as the golden domes of the cathedrals, brighter even, a mass of golden colour.
“Peristroika,” Ivan said. “Before it was the black market, now it is being a good citizen.”
“They don’t work for the government?”
Ivan shook his head. “Free enterprise. The new capitalists.”
“Stay here,” Ivan said, dropping his luggage beside a wall. Then he disappeared, swallowed up in the fierce current of bodies. All around the pile of oranges people eddied. Soldiers bought one or two before hurrying off to their trains. Ivan suddenly reappeared, a paper bag in his hand. He grabbed  his suitcase and said, “Come, come, we have to hurry!”
Frightened at the thought of being left behind or of losing sight of Ivan’s small, round figure, I rushed after him, pushing through the crowd until we came out on a train platform.
There, we paused, put down our bags for a moment’s rest. It was like something out of a movie, I thought. It was night and everywhere, Red Army uniforms, soldiers climbing onto trains, civilians lining up to get onto the cars, the platform in constant turmoil, and then two women went by, red arm bands on their coats.
“Who are they?” I asked and Ivan wrinkled his face in distaste.
“Nobody anymore. Pretty soon over.” He cut the air with his hand to signify finality. “Busybodies checking on everybody else’s business. Nothing better to do.”
The compartment was nicer than I expected. There was a single bed on each side with a table in the Centre against the wall under the widow. I hadn’t slept since leaving Canada and now, overwhelmed with tiredness, I took off my shoes and lay down. My body ached as if I’d been beaten. The shock of the day was still with me. St. Basil’s with its expression of Christianity beyond my understanding. The Kremlin with its high red walls. The eternal flame and its piles of fresh flowers.
The train jerked. Then jerked again and there was the sound of metal on metal and then the slow forward motion and tired as I was I had to look out the window. I didn’t want to miss anything. I sat at the table. Ivan opened a bottle of soda water. I’ll have to remember that, I thought, the bottle opener is under the table.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Moscow, the night had deepened and the brilliant white snow was now purple and gold. The stained buildings had given way to stretches of fresh snow and dachas surrounded by picket fences and scatterings of trees and empty, unused roads. The conductress had knocked and brought tea in glasses held with metal holders. The tea was strong and served with large hard lumps of sugar and biscuits. She had been stunningly beautiful, the way I knew Russian women could be, with blonde curly hair to her shoulders, a wedge blue cap on her head, a peasant blouse, a blue skirt and leather boots.
I wished I could say something to her, something in Russian, something kind and not stupid. Like most North Americans though I was trapped in English by my arrogance and all I knew was da and nyet and possibe and chapka and chi. so I said possibe when she handed me my tea. Then, unable to think of anything else, I dug in my handbag and took out a box of Purdy’s chocolates and opened it and held it out and was delighted by her pleasure. When she took one, I urged her to take another After she was gone and we were sitting at the table, sipping tea, I thought nothing could be better than this, I’d never forget this, the Army officers in their uniforms, the sound of the train, the snow covered dachas, the tea, the beautiful conductress. When I woke in the morning, still in my clothes, with a blanket thrown over me, Ivan was saying, “William, wake up, wake up, we are at Kiev soon.”
We took a car to the hotel. When I was in my room, I started to say something and Ivan held up one finger to stop me. Then he turned on the television so it was quite loud and no one could hear what we were saying.
Just before he left, he took the paper bag out of his suitcase. In it were four oranges. One for his wife, one for his son, one for himself. He took out the fourth orange and gave it to me. I didn’t want to take it because I guessed at what it must have cost but I knew I couldn’t say no without it being misunderstood so I took it and kept it and didn’t eat it until three days later when I was sitting in the park with the statue of Taras Tschevchenko. I took a long time eating it, using my pen knife to make thin slices, eating all of it, even the slightly bitter rind.