New Year’s Eve, Kiev

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New Year’s morning, I was up early. There’d been no babushka at the desk on this floor and nobody in the hallways. Normally there were Cubans or Vietnamese hanging around the foyer outside the restaurant. Today it was empty. I went inside and thought there was no one here either but then a waitress appeared. The tables were still covered with dirty dishes and bottles and she was slowly picking them up and putting them on a trolley. I sat down at my usual table beside the wall. She ignored me and after a few minutes I got up and went over to where she was working.

 

“Can I get breakfast?” I asked.

 

She shook her head, not meaning no but meaning she didn’t understand because with it she shrugged held her hands open in front of her.

 

“Breakfast,” I repeated slowly.

 

She shook her head again and I looked around for someone who could speak English. There was still just the two of us. I couldn’t think of the word in Ukrainian or Russian so I said petite dejeuner, remembering it from grade ten French and she said, Ah, oui, petite dejeuner and I nodded and said, oui, petite dejeuner. She said non and swung her right arm slowly in a half circle indicating the shambles from the night before. Pain, I said, fromage, kubisa, chi, pointing at a buffet table which still had some food on it. She nodded, then winced as if her head hurt. She went and got me a plate of bread which curled a bit at the edges and stale cheese and sliced meat and a large cup of tea. I said, “Possibe.” and she disappeared through the doors which led to the kitchen and didn’t come back.

 

Ivan met me for lunch. By that time the restaurant seemed itself again, rigidly organized with clean tablecloths and china and cutlery. All the staff seemed to whisper and walk on their toes. Ivan ordered a carafe of brandy. We toasted each other’s health until the decanter was empty. When we left, I was glad to get out into the cool air. We wandered down Kreschatik and caught a streetcar.

 

“You don’t mind,” Ivan said. “Today, no drivers.”

 

“I’m not American,” I said. I wondered if he actually believed that Americans and Canadians were different. After all, if someone had said to me, I’m not Russian, I’m Albanian or Azerbijani, it wouldn’t have meant anything. All my life I’d been taught they were Russian, that Russia and the Soviet Union were one and the same. They all wore fur hats and spent every waking moment of their lives plotting the downfall of democracy and replacing it with godless Communism.

 

That’s why the market shocked me. It was one large room in a huge building. Inside the government sold its goods at tables along the walls. In the Centre there were private sales.

 

“See these apples,” Ivan said, showing me piles of small, bruised apples. “These, the farmers provide to the state. Eighty kopeks a kilo.” At the Centre stalls the apples were red, unbruised, large, grade A. “These are the farmers’ share. Five rubles a kilo. Who says we shot all the capitalists?”

 

The tables held carrots, potatoes, beets, spices, bunches of high bush cranberries dried o the stem, whole dried fruit, pomegranates, mandarin oranges. The sellers didn’t look Russian or Ukrainian but oriental, part of the Eastern Empire beyond Moscow. These, I thought, were the ancestors of the invaders who’d worn the magnificent embroidered clothes in Moscow’s museums. These were not warriors behind the tables but farmers with broad brows and slanted eyes and dusky yellow skin. They had persimmons for sale that were overripe.

 

Ivan noticed me staring at them.

 

“Fifteen republics,” he said, “and over two hundred languages.”

 

We took the streetcar to the Museum of the great Patriotic War. We bought tickets for five kopecks and Ivan showed me how to cancel my own ticket in the automatic machine. We passed the Army Officer’s Mess, the Communist Party headquarters, new apartment blocks and old houses with orange roofs.

 

Before we reached the museum, I could see the statue on the roof. One hundred and thirty meters tall, it is made of stainless steel. It holds aloft a sword. Ivan asked, “Do you think it is in bad taste?” I shrugged because I’d never thought of memorials that way, as if their major function was to be in fashion.

 

Inside, we left our coats and hats with a babushka. She’d looked at my coat, trying to find the chain or loop of cloth by which to hang it. When she couldn’t she shook her head and looked at me disapprovingly. Ivan explained that I was a Canadian comrade. She relented, nodding as if to indicate that one couldn’t expect any more of a foreigner, comrade or not.

 

The building was a circle divided into pie-shaped rooms and each room was dedicated to a hero city. I only knew about Moscow and Leningrad. I didn’t know about the agony of the others. Every room had a diorama and sculpture. The display cases and walls held photographs and diaries, personal effects, letters, weapons dug up and identified. Everywhere there was a determination to not let death be impersonal.. The figures of the dead were so large, they were beyond conceiving, beyond imagining. In one room there was a guillotine. It wasn’t what I’d expected. A Tale of Two Cities had made me think of the guillotine as massive, as imposing, but this one was small and simple, made of steel, easily assembled, easily taken down so it could be moved from place to place.

 

“For killing people,” Ivan said. “Hitler was angry with Kiev. It delayed him. After he captured the city, the Nazis murdered two hundred thousand people in two years.” He turned away from me but I saw the muscles in his face tighten and the fingers of his right hand clench. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

 

I shook my head. We were looking at something I thought might have been a cement mixer.

 

“For crushing bones. After they were raked out of the ovens.”

 

At the end of the tour we came to a room with glass topped display cases. Ivan whispered Afghanistan. These displays were like the others but visiting soldieries were standing at them, very quiet, not that they had been noisy before, but here they stood unmoving, staring at the displays, not bending down to look more closely,  just standing like they were never going to move. Ivan tugged at my sleeve and led me away. “Soon it will be over. Gorbachev will get us out. It’s no use trying to give people what they don’t want.”

 

Outside, we stood on the parapet overlooking the Dneiper.

 

“When the Red Army liberated Kiev, they had to cross here,” Ivan said.

 

Although it was not late, because the clouds hung low in the sky, it was already starting to turn dark. Before we’d gone into the museum, the river ice had been dotted with fishermen. Now they were all gone. Further out the river was open, then there was another strip of white ice and beyond that the river bank. As I watched, lights started going on. As I stood there, I tried t imagine what it was like. The Germans dug in where I was standing and the Red Army on the far bank, crawling over the dead to get at the enemy. I knew about Iow Jima and Bataan but the Americans couldn’t claim to have won this battle so Hollywood  hadn’t made a movie about it.

 

The darkness was like a fine mist, gradually erasing the far shore, softening the stainless steel woman who loomed above us. It was turning cold and I was glad of m y heavy coat and my fleece lined boots.

The evening before, New Year’s Eve, Ivan had taken me to the Cultural Palace. We’d gone on the subway. I was crowded and people were laughing and talking. Because it was called a palace, I thought it would be an old building with turrets and suits of armor but it was a modern theater with floors of glass windows and carpeted foyers in which there was courtly dancing, a fashion show, chamber music. When we went inside, I might have been in any North American theater, except for all the elderly men and women wearing green blazers and rows of medals.

 

I’d expected folk dancing, village costumes,  nostalgia. Instead, we got five rock bands from Riga and Moscow. Rock bands in outrageous clothes taken from American televisions. The musicians jumped and pranced across the stage, swinging their long hair and pounding out the amps. The audience was very polite in that formal, rather distant way audiences have when something exotic and incomprehensible is presented. Now standing on the ramparts with the riverbank fading away and the drizzle staring again, and thinking of the numbers of the dead and how wide the river was, I wondered what they thought, what they really thought, the veterans who were at the concert, the veterans who had stormed up this hill, other hills, across this river, across endless rivers. If the Rockers from Riga were the result, was it all worth it?

 

 

 

The Oranges of Peristroika

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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, “Say 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 training 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 was 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 window. 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 their 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.

 

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  bitter rind.