After the October Revolution of 1917, people in Russia could no longer travel freely. This did not mean, however, that people lived peaceful, settled lives. On the contrary, tumultuous currents of humanity began crisscrossing the Eurasian plains. Movements of various army troops, paramilitary formations of peasants cut off from their land, foreign legions, workers and skilled craftsmen, and roving bands of every political persuasion merged and intertwined with countless refugees fleeing chaos and death. The death throes of the old empire lasted from 1918 to 1922, in a civil war costing Russia tens of millions of lives. Two million people, with or without family jewels, managed to make their way to Europe.
Even after the country had more or less set itself to rights again, traveling was not easy. The Soviet rulers were suspicious of the unregulated movement of citizens. A person who moved about freely could pick up free ideas, threatening state security. Moreover, the new empire had two grand aims: industrialization at the fastest possible rate, and the re-education of class enemies – which potentially included all citizens. These two goals coincided in remarkable ways, generating new flows of people. Thus, one segment of the population transported another one: prisoners destined for corrective labor camps and forced to work on large-scale socialist construction projects. In maps of the north-east, the Gulag and construction project sites were indistinguishable.
The Second World War intensified the massive movements of people. Many more were arrested and deported, others were mobilized. Millions of civilians were evacuated or fled to the east or to the west. From a bird’s-eye view, the currents of humanity resembled long, turbid rivers that cut across the face of the Earth, which had grown old and disfigured before its time.
Sometime around 1943, in the middle of this human maelstrom, a young girl, along with her mother, her sister and two brothers, set out westward, fleeing from the war. At about the same time, the Germans were transporting a young Soviet prisoner of war, destined, probably, to help build the Atlantic ramparts. It was not the first time their lives were hanging by a thread. Nor were they even close to meeting. Because the current my father was caught up in was more or less continuous with my mother’s trajectory, though the distance that separated them was at least 1,200 kilometers, they could not have intersected. They would have to wait three years to learn of one another’s existence, and another nine before they finally met face-to-face.
In one of his interviews, Joseph Brodsky said that after the death of our parents we become consequences without an initial cause. We find ourselves in an existential void from which we have been shielded by the simple fact of their existence. How is one to cast a charm over this void, or fill it up, in order to recover one’s connection with the world and move forward in it? How does one rediscover the cause? Most likely by learning to know one’s parents again, this time as children of their own parents, and children of their time.
I first tried to understand my parents’ life and fate after my father’s death. This was a professional, somewhat mercenary, interest, as I was preparing to write a novel about them. I intended to weave a narrative from facts, filling the gaps with my own imaginative efforts. Since the events in the novel take place before my birth, when my parents were not yet my parents, I could unleash my imagination.
Writing about my father means writing about my mother – and vice versa. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for a letter that she wrote to him in 1946 while he was in the Gulag, before she had ever laid eyes on him, I would not have existed. After the camps, my father was banned from living in Moscow – his birthplace – as well as from other large cities in the Soviet Union. Their first meeting took place in 1955 in Moscow and turned out to be a great disappointment to my mother. My father didn’t look like the romantic hero she had created in her imagination. But they married, and he went to live with her in Tallinn, where she had fled to from Leningrad in 1943 after having lost her parents. Their fates were still tightly bound up with history itself – its ‘iron will’, as Marxist-Leninists might have put it.
I am writing about my father, but I don’t want to lose sight of my mother. She will be my guide and my guardian angel, as she was in life; as she was to my father during their nine-year-long correspondence. ‘While faithful eyes cry with you, this life is worth the suffering,’ he wrote to his ‘faraway and close friend’, citing Schiller in one of his few letters from the Gulag that have been preserved.
The trajectory along which my father moved from 1941 to 1955 – or, rather, the current that swept him up – begins in Moscow and veers off toward the south-east, to the city of Engels on the Volga, where he was taught to shoot and parachute-jump. As part of the paratroopers division, my father flew from Moscow to the Smolensk region, toward the strategic rear of the German army. The paratroopers drank away their fear before skydiving into the enemy’s den. They jumped, machine guns at the ready, engaging in battle alongside the partisans.
In the spring of 1942 my father was wounded and taken prisoner. After this he disappeared into the enormous flood of prisoners of war in Nazi custody. For two years, his relatives lost all trace of him as he moved west through Byelorussia and Poland, through reception centers, collection points and transit camps where the prisoners were filtered. Commissars, Jews, Cheka officers and border guards were executed. The ones who survived ended up in the Stalags (prisoner-of-war camps). Of the cohort of boys born, as he was, in 1922, 70 to 80 per cent perished in the war. But my father survived, moving further west, to the Atlantic coast, most likely already part of the Todt Organisation, a military engineering group using forced labor.
Twelve years ago I came across a blurry photograph of my father on the pages of the American magazine Yank, the Army Weekly. I was in Bayeux, at the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. In the picture, my father, Corporal Sandar Valiulin, is surrounded by American officers. He is writing a flyer, urging his fellow prisoners of war to surrender. He is in the town of Portbail on the Cotentin peninsula. How did he get there? What happened to him? He never told us about it. But now, sixty years after the events, the article ‘About the Russians in Normandy’ tells his story, or at least a part of it. During the siege of Smolensk he was captured by the Germans and thrown in prison, where he was fed just enough to keep him alive. His fellow captives were ill and dying from hunger and lack of medical treatment.
Then, when all seemed hopeless, their captors offered them a chance to join one of their voluntary organizations. It was either that or forced labor. The people who joined were brought to Normandy and put to work digging gun emplacements and building barricades. One day he was put into a German uniform, given a rifle and told that he must fight for the ‘Fatherland’. With the muzzles of his captors’ guns constantly in his back he felt he had to obey, but two days after the troops’ arrival at the front, he saw his chance. When none of the German officers were around he and his friend Ivan started down the railroad track which he knew led into the American lines, until they reached the road. And there they stood, two bedraggled figures waving white flags at the approaching jeep with two American medics aboard, who picked them up.
It was estimated that a total of 200,000 Russian soldiers came to France after 1943. Until September 1944, all Russian prisoners captured in the north of France, including my father, were shipped to camps in Britain. One of the few things he told me about this experience was that the NKVD officer who visited the camp to persuade them to return to Russia had been shooed away.
But after the Yalta Conference in February 1945, all Soviet prisoners of war were forcibly repatriated to Russia. My father told us that some of the prisoners in the camp committed suicide to avoid repatriation. As George Orwell put it in his reports: ‘Many [Russian prisoners] seemed to feel, however, that after having served in the German Army, even though forcibly conscripted, they would be treated as traitors by the Russians and probably shot. Others appeared as resigned as ever to a fate that had long ago removed any element of choice in their lives.’
From England my father was transported by boat, first south to Gibraltar, then eastward through the Mediterranean toward Odessa. After that his route continued east, by way of Moscow, to Ufa, where, on 29 June 1945, the Military Tribunal of the Southern Ural Region sentenced him according to article 58-1B (treason of military personnel) to ten years in prison, with disenfranchisement of five years, specifically for working as a translator in a prisoner-of-war camp.
The next stop was Nyrob, a settlement on the River Kolva. Of the ten years of my father’s sentence, four would be spent here.
I am traveling through the Perm region. I am not a historian, not an expert on the Gulag, and for now I am no longer even a writer. For some reason words sicken me – words that tame resistant subject matter and fashion it into a product for mass consumption. I am my father’s daughter, a former prisoner of war and ‘suspicious person’ who spent ten years in the Gulag. I am following his footsteps, tracing his path, in a Hyundai van. I have not been to Russia for a long time, and I have never traveled so deep into the interior. All around me is a vast green emptiness. A grey sky presses down on this expanse, broken up by myriad bodies of water with names ending in ‘-va’, meaning ‘water’ in the local language of Komi – Usva (Noisy water), Kosva (Small water), Kolva (Fish water), Vilva (New water). From time to time, a cemetery springs up out of nowhere along the road. Around every grave there is a low blue wrought-iron fence. On top of the graves are plastic flowers in gaudy colors. The grass grows high between the fences, as if to discourage visitors from honoring the dead.
I am following the tracks of my father, who passed this way seventy-two years ago. But somehow I’m reminded of my childhood, of Tallinn, Estonia, and the feeling that Russia evoked in me then. The country seemed to loom over our little republic like a huge shadow. Even the sun had to struggle to shine through it. And on dull, overcast days like this one, Russia swallowed up all the last rays of light and plunged the Earth into darkness. The shadow originated in the mysterious location east of the town of Narva on the Estonian-Russian border. The next station was Ivangorod. I traveled by the Tallinn–Moscow night train when I was young. The journey brought me out of my familiar Estonian microcosm into this shadowy space, and my heart faltered. I realized immediately that different laws applied here, laws that superseded the banal physical laws of the human body. It was as if an enormous centripetal force was pulling me in, depriving me of self-awareness and self-knowledge. The train wheels were clacking and I became a silent part of some collective whole, and dissolved into it. Beyond the train was some sort of primordial substance, protoplasm, the very apeiron or ‘boundlessness’ which the ancient Greeks posited as the first principle and element of all existence, and which they feared. Indeed, the boundless whole, the indeterminate, the irrational and unpredictable, can assume any form. But the form – or peras – that it takes depends on human beings, and therein lies the possibility of salvation.
The Perm region is a country of exiles. It abounds in rivers and lakes; penal colonies and unbearably red sunsets; Stalinist labor camps and mighty elks, the maternal source of all the Finno-Ugric peoples; marvelous ancient and modern churches; poisoned yellow rivers and huge ancient boulders; copper, salt, coal and diamonds; wooden idols and forgotten people; abandoned mines and pangolins from the Paleozoic era; monocities built around dying industries; caves where the ‘pale-eyed folk’ of Finno-Ugric legend hid away from the Cossack chieftains in the sixteenth century. Here, at the eastern foot of the Ural Mountains, runs the boundary between Europe and Asia. A concrete obelisk stands on two continents, surrounded by a mountain of garbage and empty champagne bottles. Cows are grazing in the semi-mythical capital of the ancient Urals, or Great Permia, established on seven hills, like Rome. A curly haired angel, defying death and guaranteeing eternal life, hovers over the sign of a funeral parlor bearing the name resurrection. Beavers gnaw through trees that topple onto electrical wires, causing frequent outages.
Here, one sees wooden figures of Christ languishing in a dungeon before his crucifixion – a favorite subject of the local craftsmen. This Christ has the angular face, narrow eyes and high cheekbones of the local Komi-Permyak people. Boris Pasternak emerged from a spiritual crisis here, having seen the light of literature. Afterward, he described the city of Solikamsk under the guise of the city of Krestovozdvizhensk (‘Raising of the Cross’ City), in Doctor Zhivago. Here, the exiled Osip Mandelstam jumped out of a second-floor window of a hospital in a fit of madness, regaining his reason. Viktor Astafiev, who ended up in this city after the Second World War, shook hands with the only person he knew there – the statue of Vladimir Lenin on the square by the railway station. And here, according to legend, a certain peasant decided to save the world by carving 500 wooden sculptures of Christ. He only managed to complete half the quota by the time he died, and so the world was not saved after all.
Rocking like a boat on the waves, the Hyundai swerves around the potholes in the road – where there are any roads to speak of. All the post-revolution settlements with Russian names – Ryabinino, Lobanikha, Krasnovishersk – were built by deportees: Germans from the Volga and ‘prosperous’ peasants, ‘kulaks’ of the second category. The kulaks of the first category were sent straight to prisons and labor camps. From the window of the van I see new brick churches among the dark gray apartment blocks of Soviet civilization. Billboards and signs exhort the locals to make a contribution to the cause of the true faith – the higher truth, they call it. The streets are still Soviet: Communist Street, Pioneer Street, Builders Street, Victory Day Street, one after another . . . They look cheerless and forsaken. What was it the Zen master asked the pupil who was searching for eternal truth? ‘Have you had breakfast?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then go wash your plate.’ Here they don’t like washing plates. Perhaps it’s too lowly a task, unworthy of the higher truth.
In-between the towns and settlements, new and ancient, is the taiga. We get out of the van to stretch our legs. The earth is covered in gray moss. There are countless birch trees, and a monumental stillness reigns. But from the depths of the forest, from the sky, from the rivers and from the mountains, the backbone of Russia, comes a cold existential breeze. It is unmistakable, a uniquely Russian phenomenon, untranslatable into any language. It extinguishes self-awareness and restores the natural order of existence. Here, the hierarchy of geological epochs holds sway. And yet, within this enormous expanse, it is hard to breathe – or is it the boundlessness itself, no longer just a literary paradox, that is so chokingly claustrophobic? My heart feels constricted, as it did on that night train from Tallinn to Moscow when I was a child. Who am I? But what kind of question is that? As though it had any significance at all . . . The Urals are the ideal setting for the Gulag, not only because of the abundant mineral deposits, so necessary for building a new world. Not only because there is no place to run to from here – if you try, you come up against an impenetrable wall of forests and rivers. Here, the existential breeze liberates human beings from all illusions of personhood and delivers them naked into the maw of the Gulag, the shape apeiron assumed in this part of the world in the twentieth century.
I have never before traveled so deep into Russia, but I recognize it, as though I am back in a long-forgotten dream. In this dream, my father is traveling under convoy on the same road our van is trundling along. His clothes are ragged, he is in a long line of others like himself, people exiled from life. The farther they travel, the more inexorably their collective suffering wipes away all individual features. His voice is attenuated, he is effaced. His fate is nothing beyond the realization of historical will. His life has no value. Like all elemental forces, history is blind. It is indifferent as to how, and when, and by whom it demonstrates its will. My father is an embodiment of the will of history. His body is raw material for the great empire. The highest meaning and purpose of his life, his individual fate, consist precisely in this, no more.
I am a bad tourist. Ungrateful. I look at the great rivers and see prisoners on barges. I look at the road and see trucks carrying people destined for the Gulag. The landscape spreads out before my eyes like a Chinese scroll, and in each unfolding image I seek my father. I look for him in clips from documentaries; I look for his photograph on the pages of Pavel Polian’s book, Victims of Two Dictators. I look at the eyes of Soviet prisoners crazed with hunger, thrusting underwear through the barbed wire, desperate to trade it for bread. Here they are, with the same crazed eyes, gnawing at a hunk of bread, or crowding around for the distribution of their meager rations, or drinking out of puddles in the road. Here they are, assembled before a delegation of the International Red Cross, barefoot, clutching their caps in their hands, or standing with their hands behind their backs, bound to a pillar at the camp Golgotha. Their faces are tiny blurry spots, no bigger than the heads of pins in the human sea of one of the camps. As if it were possible to discern even a single face here! Again and again I peer through a magnifying glass at the face of a captive soldier, blackened by the sun. He, too, is tied to a pillar and to barbed wire; like my father, his eyes are deep-set and hollow, his nose prominent, he has long straggly white hair. The expression on his face is the same as that of the Perm Christ in the dungeon. I am familiar with this gaze from the labor camp photographs of my father – this is how the inmates from the Gulag look. They are made faceless by collective suffering. The image of the soldier unnerves me, it won’t leave me in peace; but my father is no longer alive, and I have no one else to ask, no one who can tell me whether the photograph is him or not. I will have to learn to live without peace.
We get out of the van to take in the magnificent views, the ancient churches and bell towers, icons, wooden architecture, colorful tiled Dutch stoves in the mansions of the nobility. We are inducted into the secrets of salt production, coal and diamond mining, and the Permian geologic period. With our cameras, smartphones and tablets we eagerly absorb all that is beautiful, eternal and good. We aren’t allowed to get distracted. We are working, we can’t neglect or overlook a single detail. I take picture after picture, assiduously, along with everyone else. Hundreds upon hundreds of snapshots – the same carved window frames, notched, zigzag cornices, elegant arcs and arches, saintly countenances, gilded iconostases from various perspectives and in different kinds of lighting. The snapshots impose boundaries on the boundless, they enchant us and shield our eyes and hearts from the apeiron. And here, on an icon, is a full-length figure of the famous St Christopher of Perm, with the face of a hound. He is the patron saint of hunters, trappers and fishermen. According to legend, a beautiful youth asked God to protect him from women by conferring on him the face of a dog, which God saw fit to do. I put down my camera and examine the saint. Christopher, with the profile of a dog’s head, is a copy of the ancient Egyptian Anubis, who had the head of a jackal and was the deity of burial and embalming, and the conductor of souls into the kingdom of the dead. Later, the Greeks combined Anubis with Hermes, another conductor to the underworld, giving the hybrid-being the name Hermanubis and refashioning him with a dog’s face rather than a jackal’s. Anubis-Hermanubis made a long journey, but he knew where he was going, and definitely what he was doing, transforming himself into St Christopher. How hard he would have to work, conducting all those children of men who perished here in the Gulag, leading them through the 20,000 rivers and lakes of Perm into the next world! I look at the saint, and all that is beautiful, eternal and good recedes ever further from me, into the shadows of the Perm forest.
The mysteriously poetic term ‘Gulag Archipelago’ penetrated my consciousness in the mid-seventies. I first heard it on my father’s massive transistor radio. He leaned over it with his whole body, trying to catch his portion of truth, broadcast in an easterly direction every evening by Voice of America and Radio Freedom through the crackle and static of jamming. The new words sank into my imagination along with other romantic names, like Babylon, Urartu, Illyria, Assyria, Dardania . . . I had no idea what it meant, but I hesitated to ask my father. And with some sort of sixth sense I understood that it was strictly forbidden to utter the word ‘Gulag’ outside home.
I have a strange father, different from the other fathers. In the first place, he is old, old enough to be my grandfather. Second, he’s seen Notre-Dame de Paris, he has picked blackberries by the side of the road in France and he has been to England. Third, interesting friends of my father’s sometimes visit us from Leningrad and Moscow. They have a secret that somehow links them all together, but they don’t talk about it. Still, these friends curse the Soviet authorities, openly and cheerfully, and every year on 5 March, they celebrate the anniversary of the death of Stalin. My father also curses the Soviet authorities; that’s fourth. Everyone dreams of going to England or to Paris, but only the bigwigs get to go. When I ask him about how and when he ended up there, he hums and haws, then changes the subject.
My father never ever throws anything away. The cupboards and drawers are stuffed with scraps of twine, old shoelaces, candle stubs, empty ballpoint pens, matchboxes and bent nails. Sometimes Mama secretly clears out the cupboards and drawers, and then there’s a big row at home. My father can sulk in silence for days on end, not paying any attention to us. His face is like a dark sky before a thunderstorm and we’re afraid to talk to him. We wait until the sky clears. Sometimes he explodes in thunder and lightning, Mama cries and I comfort her. Then his face brightens up again. He jokes sweetly and declares his love for her in funny Estonian. He has a round scar on his chest and a gleaming Order of the Red Star in a flat box. He’s a war veteran, but on Victory Day he never goes to the big meeting of veterans.
Soon I find out from my sister, who was told and sworn to secrecy by a cousin, who in turn was told and sworn to secrecy by his freethinking mother, that Father had done time in the camps. My parents were keeping the skeleton in the closet to protect us: under Brezhnev, Stalin’s labor camps were a forbidden topic. So the magical formula, the ‘Gulag Archipelago’, turned out to be just the Gulag, a prosaic, bureaucratic term. But for me, the Gulag was not just the name of the main administrative bureau of the labor camps. For me it was also the oppressive silence of my father, his capacity to close up for days on end, and his loneliness, which neither my mother nor I, or my sister could ever lessen or counter. It was his dark face like the color of the sky before a storm, it was his flashes of rage when all the pain and humiliation inflicted on the ‘little man’, the man of no consequence, poured out. Now I know why he creeps over to the radio to listen every evening. He wants to know who he is, and what happened to him and to his country. Now I know why Estonians don’t consider him to be an invader, an occupier, the way they view other Russians, even though he speaks Estonian poorly. Of course, Father is a tactful and civilized man; but the main thing is that he came back ‘from over there’ and this, more than a common language and culture, connects him, a Russian-speaking Tatar, with the Estonians, who were also banished ‘over there’ or lost their loved ones ‘there’. And now I know why he doesn’t like the 9 May, Victory Day. It transports him, in his mind, to ‘that other spring’ Solzhenitsyn wrote about in The Gulag Archipelago, the state’s betrayal of its own people.
On both sides of the road the forest is screened by high blank walls. Barbed wire twists and circles along the top of the walls. Behind the walls there are watchtowers and barracks. We are approaching Nyrob, the ‘end of the world’. The plethora of Gulag camps has dwindled now to three correctional penal colonies. Seventy-two years ago, when the current swept my father to this place, the Nyrob Labor Camp consisted of thirteen auxiliary camps next to a large-scale Gulag logging operation. I don’t know which camp my father was in. He, and the other prisoners like him who had spent time in Europe, had to be isolated from society so as not to corrupt the innocence of ordinary Soviet citizens.
We are on our way to look at the famous Nikolsky Church. It is not simply a beautiful five-cupola structure from the seventeenth century, baroque and lacy, like a great sailing ship seen from afar. It is a wonder church, a miracle of the true faith. According to legend, it was built by mysterious craftsmen: ‘no one knew where they came from, or who hired them’. It was built without the use of scaffolding or platforms. Every day they would build and every night the church would sink into the ground. The next morning they would start to build again. Then the master craftsmen suddenly disappeared and the next morning the church rose up, as it stands today. The wonder church was built on the order of Nikolai the Wonder-worker. His icon appeared three times on the stump of a tree, our priest of the true faith tells us, to which it kept returning miraculously from the neighboring Cherdyn, until it was understood that the hand of the Almighty was at work, and that a church was to be built exactly on this spot, where ‘all roads end’. Our priest also heaps criticism on the internet and bemoans the erosion of morals; but he is kindly disposed toward us. Dressed in the garb of pious wayfarers, we sit on benches, our hands folded in our laps, and listen to him talk about the martyr Boyar Mikhail, uncle of the first Romanov, whose body, after being buried in the ground for five years, remained intact and uncorrupted, except for two fingers on one of his hands. People touched the fetters of the saint to cure themselves of ailments. The priest is indignant about the Komsomol members from the Militant Union of Atheists, who threw garbage into the martyr’s grave in the 1930s. I think about the tens of thousands of convicts who felled trees here to fulfill Stalin’s five-year economic plans. Almost nothing is left of the camps now. Nature is encroaching. Besides, the disintegrating labor camps of the Gulag do not fit into the program of the beautiful, eternal and good. There is nothing to see here; and so, why talk about something so sad, why rub salt into our wounds? As it is, everything is already so clear, so obvious. Evil is an unavoidable, fundamental part of existence. Like the mighty forces of nature that surround us, it always was and always will be. In the country of the Gulag they prefer not to recall the Gulag.
But in the labor camp museum you can witness the construction of this earthly hell. People who say that Russians are lazy and disorganized are wrong. Out of the apeiron that spread throughout Russia after 1917 they fashioned prisons and labor camps, and filled them with people. The ordinariness of the facilities of hell on earth, their banality, is striking. Those who doubt the words of Hannah Arendt should visit the Museum of the History of Political Repression Perm-36 (also known as the Gulag Museum) to see how right she was. Here, there is not even a hint of Dante’s hell. It reminds me of Dostoevsky’s idea of eternity in Crime and Punishment. The cells are reminiscent of a rural bathhouse, a smoky space with spiders lurking in the corners. But the world of the Gulag is terrible not only in its banality but also in its ubiquitousness – and, therefore, in its ineradicability. This is a world turned upside down, where notions of truth, love and goodness, inherently pliant and ambiguous terms, become tainted and specious. Deceit reigns here; it isn’t a deviation from the norm, however, but the norm itself. The Gulag is the material embodiment of deception in all its infernal essence. Satan, the father of deceit, inspired this system, changing his mask – Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky, Stalin . . . The system was constructed and maintained by his innumerable servants, ordinary men and women who innocently believed the specious words. The lies of the Gulag were revealed, but the ethical signs or meanings, twisted and distorted in the interests of historical necessity, have yet to be put right.
This is the reason why so many victims of the Gulag, including my father, felt themselves to be ‘suspicious persons’ even after their amnesty and rehabilitation. This is the reason why people don’t want to recall the Gulag in the country of the Gulag. This is the reason why those who are trying to memorialize the camps and remember the faces of the prisoners are finding it ever more difficult to accomplish this task, and why they meet with ever more resistance.
After the Gulag Museum, the world outside seems bright and marvelous. Even our dilapidated South Korean van has recovered its spirits and speeds along the road, relieved to be overtaking the ghosts of the past. The passengers in the van have also become more lively, taking snapshots of the sun-drenched landscape through the windows with renewed energy. The human being and the machine observe a great law of life: don’t look back, whatever may have happened, and keep going, up the mountain where the beautiful, eternal and good await you. The landscape is, indeed, very beautiful . . . The Perm region is called the heart of Russia. It lives up to its name. Here, far from the lights of the big city, amid the powerful cycles of nature and on the ancient breeze that extinguishes self-awareness, the past and the present of Russia swirl and merge. In a single, circular motion, pagans and Christians, exiles and industrialists, revolutionaries and priests, merchants and convicts, communists and monks, peasants and soldiers, intellectuals and laborers, prisoners and convoy guards, victims and executioners, monarchists and patriots, politicians and pilgrims, businessmen and the unemployed spin and flow together, forming a charmed circle, outside of time, where everything repeats, and from which, it seems, there is no exit. I am traveling through the timeless heart of the empire. Soon I will leave this region and the current that swept my father along seventy-two years ago, but it will remain inside me. Like Russia, I am, for the time being, unable to break this vicious circle, to escape this devil’s dance.
Portrait courtesy of the author
Feature photograph © Aleksandr Zykov