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.

Snowing in Moscow, episode 1


It was snowing in Moscow when I arrived. Big flakes, as big as my thumbnail. As we stood in the lamplight at Shermatyvo, waiting for our car, the flakes spiraled like endless  small birds through the pools of light. The women were wearing bulky coats and the men long cloth coats or heavy jackets. Although it was nearly the end of December, the winter clothes weren’t needed. The air was swarm, the way that only winter air can be, as if it were soft to the touch, and underfoot the snow was turning to slush so that I was glad I’d bought waterproof boots at Sears before I’d left.
“Taxi, you want a taxi,” a man said in heavily accented English.
“Good capitalists,” Ivan said, laughing and waving himaway. “They have a car and they want to make a few rubles. Gorbachev’s New Man.”
Our car arrived and once I was sitting down, I realized how tired I was. It was dark out so there wasn’t much to see, snow and darkened buildings and , sometimes, a high fence. It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. The idea surprised me because I hadn’t realized I’d expected anything.
“You’ve been traveling a long time?” Ivan asked.
“Twenty-four hours,” I answered, wondering if it were true, confused by the lack of sleep, the eleven hour time change, the shifting images of airports, the surprise I always feel at having arrived somewhere distant after a long trip.
“We’ll be at the hotel s shortly. You’ll sleep then.”
But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I spent the night alternating between lying on my bed and standing in the window, watching the street. For most of the night the street was empty, then a city crew appeared,, noisily scraping away the snow and sometime after that a woman unlocked the doors to the building opposite the hotel.  She went inside and a minute later a light went on and I could see that she was in some kind of office. Then, gradually, although it was still dark, people began to appear in two’s and three’s and enter the buildings. Lights began to go on here and there.
Standing there, in the window of the Hotel Moscva, I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew it what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. Something about our standing outside Shermatyvo made me feel  if I were a child again, waiting at a bus stop in Winnipeg with my grandmother and now, I felt like a young man, standing at a window of the St. Alex Hotel. There was the same winter darkness, the same bulky, dark clothed figures scurrying through the cold, that same intensity of light from the windows. The hotel room with its high ceiling and the bathroom with its black and white tiles had something elegant and practical about it at the same time, the way CN hotels always made me feel.
At breakfast, I was disappointed by the samovar. I’d always thought they were filled with tea but discovered it contained only hot water. There was a buffet of cheese and bread and sliced meat and cold vegetables. I wasn’t hungry but I drank four cups of chi. I learned to say chi right away. It was my first Russian word. There were others I knew because they’d become English words. Words like czar and commissar but this one would always be special to me, the way the first word learned in a foreign place is always special.
“Today,” Ivan said, “you go sightseeing with Olga. Very good English.  Very pretty. You take car. You brought camera? You can take pictures anywhere. Ask anything. Glasnost is here.”
But the car didn’t arrive. Ivan sent me to shop in the Berioshka while he telephoned about the car. Outside, the snow had quit falling and the day was clear and cold. When Ivan found me among the marushkas, he was apologetic about the car but shrugged his shoulders signifying nothing could be done. Later, Olga apologized twice more. It told  her I was glad someone else had taken the car because it meant we could walk. The day was colder than the previous one and the freshly frozen ice crunching under our feet and our breath rising in plumes reminded me of being twenty in Winnipeg. There was the delicious feeling of being warm inside my clothes and walking beside a pretty woman to somewhere interesting.
On the way to the Kremlin I suddenly felt that strange disorientation, I sometimes feel when I encounter something totally unexpected in a foreign place. City crews were hanging snowmen and bunting and signs saying Happy New Year on the lamp standards. The streets were thick with people dressed in the same motley of  jogging suits and American parkas that you’d see in Regina or Edmonton. Waiting at a red light, I was overcome with black and white images I’d repeatedly seen on World At War. It was like I kept expecting bombed out buildings and people struggling through the snow, pulling the dead on sleighs.
We waited in line for a ticket to the Cathedrals. The domes were surrounded by scaffolding. The new gold leaf shimmered in the clear winter sky, filling the air with yellow light. Before I left Canada, one of my friends said, “Moscow is an Eastern city. There you will know you are not in the West.” but as I stood in line, looking at the multiple onion domes and crooked crosses, instead of everything seeming foreign and mysterious, it made me think of Winnipeg and small prairie towns.
There were a hundred people ahead of us waiting for tickets. We shuffled forward for half an hour before we reached the booth. It had three windows. Although it was a holiday and the city was filled with visitors two of the windows were shut. The one that was open was small, no more than a hand’s width and so low that everyone had to bow down to ask for tickets.
After seeing the glory of the cathedrals from the outside, the interiors were a disappointment. They felt closed in, cramped, heavy, more like caves for the dead than entrances to the Resurrection. I could imagine centuries of worshippers crowded together in their dark clothes, holding candles, hoping to get a glimpse of the icons which rose from floor to ceiling, barbaric, full of vanity and authority, promising everything which was unobtainable on earth.
“Here are icons,” Olga said. I could hardly have missed them. The paintings were in rows from floor to ceiling. “We are not religious but these are our heritage, our history, so we must preserve them.”
She said it with all the felling of a tape recorder. Intrigued, I began to watch her out of the corner of my eye, wondering it would be possible for an honest moment to emerge, when she might say something she had not repeated a thousand or ten thousand times before. I’d heard that voice in other places, wherever there were tourists. Tour guides on buses talked like this. Except when I was in Hamburg. In Hamburg it had been different. The guide, even after he’d been told, could not grasp that we were Canadians. He would be describing some  historical building,  his voice running in a worn groove and then, as if he’d had a short circuit in  his program, he’d suddenly and bitterly describe  how the area had been bombed by Americans and how women and children and old people had to sleep in the snow and rain. These accusations would appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly, nearly incoherent fragments of some nightmare world.
“Here are more icons,” Olga said as we rounded a pillar. “You are Christian. You must like icons.” There was a flicker of emotion in her voice. Concern, I thought. As if she were worried that I was not reacting correctly, that my interest had not been properly calculated.
I thought I might try to explain to her about Christians, about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, about Martin Luther and graven images, about the splintered and splintering Catholic church, about Jimmy Swaggert, about people who kiss snakes to get close to God, about a religion so full of permutations it can preach forgiveness and love and yet manifest itself as a bumper sticker imploring every passerby to kill a Commie for Christ. Instead, I followed her down the narrow stone steps and into the sunlight and was happy with the crowds of children, the clusters of tourists, the Russians on holiday and wondered as she led me to see Napoleon’s cannon what she would look like without her large coat and her chapka, what she would wear if it were a warm day in June. Ivan had said over breakfast that she was a single mother and now I wondered if she had a lover, if when she went home at night she spoke to him with anger or passion or fear or love, with something in her voice other than the practiced neutrality of memorization and then I remembered the stories about eight people sharing a two or three room apartment and wondered instead if this, then, showing me about the city, was not what she escaped from but what she escaped to.
After the debris of Napoleon’s defeat, we looked at the Czar’s bell and the czar’s cannon. The czar’s cannon had never been fired and his bell had never been lifted from the ground. They had been built too big to actually be used. Now, they were just curiosities, concrete examples of ambition gone mad.
Olga left me at the hotel but after lunch, she returned with the missing car. We rode out to a brown and white castle that looked like it had been made of iced chocolate cake. She told me it had been used to house ex-czarinas. The idea took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that one had to do something with left over czarinas. In America the divorce and widowed wives of the rich and powerful married someone who could afford to keep them and faded into an obscurity broken only by scandal or death. Like the cathedrals, the neglected castle was surrounded by scaffolding.
“Are they planning on having more czarinas?” I joked, pointing at the repairs.
“Peristroika. For tourists to look at.”
“And glasnost?”
“We can say what we wish. There are demonstrations nearly every day on Red Square.”
She showed me Moscow University, then we went to the Lenin Hills Here, because of the view, we got out of the car. I asked about the ski jump. She told me how high it was, the amount of materials in it, how long it took to build, how fast the skiers traveled. I said, thinking that even for a guide she knew an exceptional number of facts, “Does you son use the ski jump?”
She turned sharply toward me and blurted out, like someone else had suggested the same thing before me, “Never, never, would I let him do this. It’s much too dangerous.”
The chauffeur had got out and was smoking a Canadian cigarette a little ways away. She glanced at him, then added, just in case he had overheard what she had said,“Of course, if he showed talent and, if he could bring honour to the Soviet Union and if he was needed, I wouldn’t keep him from doing what was best for the country.”