New Year’s Eve, Kiev


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?




Snowing in Moscow


St. Basils


When I arrived, It was snowing in Moscow. 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 warm, 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 him away. “He has a car and wanst 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 some time 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 I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. The first time I felt quite small, as 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 Royal 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 feeling 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 divorced 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, “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.”