Wednesday, December 27, 1989

USSR journal: Frankfurt to Moscow, after the solstice


12/28? Gray sky follows us halfway around the world, a light snow falls in Frankfurt. Women are dressed in furs, the real stuff. At the Moscow airport we circle, see the sunset again and again and again. Two animated things frantically move like oil derricks, or wiggling dogs in red and white. Sudden realization of manic radars scanning the airwaves.

A light burns a field of snow. White trunks of birches at twilight, like ghosts. What was it that haunted me so as a child? Why was I so filled with such fear by the ghostly apparitions of tree trunks, otherworldly glowing wood phosphor?

I land in the heart of the beast again, I’m in Russia, twice in a lifetime. I expected nothing. Do I go on to meet a lover, or is that too, something in the past? Everything is gray as the Berlin Wall.

A woman from Poland talks to me about being a stranger in her own native land after a year in America. She has mixed feelings about returning to the land of bears—as do I. The runways shine like glass, shifting snow, directional wins. It’s five below zero, the captain says. Am I really inside the heart of the beast again?

Reading a spy book about Moscow, I arrive properly steeped in myth/truth, Pravda. I’m here on a business visa this time. Did I write that Sasha Karpenko went with us to the Soviet Embassy on Christmas morning? It was a poet who got us our visas— he helped to sway the Ukrainian with puppy dog eyes, he was 6 foot 6, whose last name Suchkov, Sasha translates as a bundle of twigs or switches.

I buy cigarettes to bribe taxis and I write in red ink. Everything here is called krashnaya this or that, which means red and beautiful. It means nothing if everything is red.

The rings of Moscow. Bull’s-eyes. Many American students arriving to Moscow. I want to know how come they’re all here now? John Masura is being enigmatic, he’s depressed perhaps. It’s more than a lack of sleep, there’s a wall between us. Perhaps we got too close.

When we enter into the Moscow airport we are shepherded into a long circular corridor lined with glass. Circular like the outer wings of Moscow. A babushka mutters a few words. We wait in line with documenti. The lines in Russia or as ubiquitous as birches in winter. I can’t help but think of Zhivago’s Peredelkino, a place where I’ve never been. This country that reveres its poets but muzzles them into silence. Tavarichi, the announcer says. The communist term, though officially not in use, is common.

The land of sable hats and defecting spies. The businessman behind me pulls out a flask of vodka from his coat and transfers into an inside pocket with practiced indifference—it is a movement most familiar to him. His posters are wrapped in newspaper from Beijing. Flying east after the solstice, the night is a hungry tiger that follows us down, and sunset follows us in rapid sequence. No white nights here. And I’ve had no sleep for 24 hours or more.

12/29  Small sparrows huddle on the Kremlin wall. Misha said, when I was four, I asked Breszhnev’s guard if he was a sparrow. My mother was paralyzed with fear. A sparrow is an informer. The banks of the Moscow River are made of the bones of the worker, he says. Now, Sakharov is considered a God. You have to die first, then you’ll be famous at 95.

We passed a dead pigeon in the snow on Arabat Street. Marina Tsarina’s sister sits on a bench reading poetry. Pigeons gather at her feet. Near Gorky Street, a woman is carrying a mesh bag of potatoes—survival food. When you have friends, you have everything. We have what is called the Bears gift. Sometimes we call it wooden rubles. For example, we supply Cuba with snow removal equipment. And we send cars with heaters to the desert. Vessels without refrigeration to Saudi Arabia.

Misha introduces us to a philosopher friend from Azerbaijan. He lives in a writers’ cooperative. He says everything is free of charge here, but you have to pay for it. Red carnations under glass by the street corner heated by votive lights to keep from freezing. Socialist altars. We’re watching Soviet  TV, counting the Rumanian dead. Real candles lit on the tree. The last three months of the decade, the most fantastic. We are sentenced to understand each other, he says. Nosdrovia, and drinks another shot of vodka.