During the last days of the last tsar, there lived a peasant named Pushkin in a small village one hundred miles from Moscow. Though Pushkin and his wife, Irina, had not been blessed with children, they had been blessed with a cozy two-room cottage and a few acres that they farmed with the patience and persistence appropriate to their lot. Row by row they would till their soil, sow their seeds and harvest their crops – moving back and forth across the land like a shuttle through a loom. And when their workday was done, they would journey home where they would dine on cabbage soup at a little wooden table and then succumb to the holy sleep of the countryside.
Though the peasant Pushkin did not share his namesake’s facility with words, he was something of a poet in his soul – and when he witnessed the leaves sprouting on the birch trees, or the thunderstorms of summer, or the golden hues of autumn, he would feel in his heart that theirs was a satisfactory life. In fact, so satisfactory was their life, had Pushkin uncovered an old bronze lantern while tilling the fields and unleashed from it an ancient genie with three wishes to grant, he wouldn’t have known what to wish for.
And we all know exactly where that sort of happiness leads.
Like many of Russia’s peasants, Pushkin and his wife belonged to a mir – a cooperative that leased the land, allocated the acres and shared expenses at the mill. On occasion, the members of the mir would gather to discuss some matter of mutual concern. At one such meeting in the spring of 1916, a young man who had traveled all the way from Moscow took to the podium in order to explain the injustice of a country in which 10 percent of the people owned 90 percent of the land. In some detail, he described the means by which capital had sweetened its own tea and feathered its own nest. In conclusion, he encouraged all assembled to wake from their slumbers and join him in the march toward the inevitable victory of the international proletariat over the forces of repression.
Pushkin was not a political man, or even a particularly educated man. So, he did not grasp the significance of everything this Muscovite had to say. But the visitor spoke with such enthusiasm and made use of so many colorful expressions that Pushkin took pleasure in watching the young man’s words go by just as one would the flags on an Easter Sunday flotilla.
That night, as Pushkin and his wife walked home, they were both quiet. This struck Pushkin as perfectly appropriate given the hour and the delicate breeze and the chorus of crickets singing in the grass. But if Irina was quiet, she was quiet the way a heated skillet is quiet – in the moments before you drop in the fat. For while Pushkin had enjoyed watching the young man’s words drift by, Irina’s consciousness had closed upon them like the jaws of a trap. With an audible snap, she had taken hold and had no intention of letting go. In fact, so tight was her grip on the young man’s arguments that, should he ever want them back, he would have to gnaw through his own phrases the way a wolf in a trap gnaws through its ankle.
The wisdom of the peasant is founded on one essential axiom: while wars may come and go, statesmen rise and fall, and popular attitudes wax and wane, when all is said and done a furrow remains a furrow. Thus, Pushkin witnessed the war years, the collapse of the monarchy and the rise of Bolshevism with the judicious perspective of Methuselah. And once the hammer and sickle were flapping over Mother Russia, he was ready to pick up his plow and resume the work of life. So, he was utterly unprepared for the news his wife delivered in May of 1918 – that they were moving to Moscow.
‘Moving to Moscow,’ said Pushkin. ‘But why on earth would we be moving to Moscow?’
‘Why?’ demanded Irina with a stamp of the foot. ‘Why? Because the time has come!’
In the pages of nineteenth-century novels, it was not uncommon for the lovely young ladies raised in the countryside to long for a life in the capital. After all, that is where the latest fashions could be seen, the latest dance steps learned and the latest romantic intrigues discussed sotto voce. In a similar manner, Irina longed to live in Moscow because that’s where the factory workers swung their hammers in unison and the songs of the proletariat could be heard from every kitchen door.
‘No one pushes a monarch over a cliff to celebrate the way things were,’ proclaimed Irina. ‘Once and for all, the time has come for Russians to lay the foundations of the future – shoulder to shoulder and stone by stone!’
When Irina articulated her position to her husband, using all of these words and many more, did Pushkin argue? Did he give voice to the first thoughts of hesitation that leapt into his head? He did not. Instead, he began carefully, thoughtfully formulating a rebuttal.
Interestingly, as Pushkin’s position began to take shape, it drew upon the very same words that Irina’s had: The time has come. For he was no stranger to this phrase. In fact, he was practically its closest relative. Since Pushkin was a boy, the phrase had roused him in the morning and tucked him in at night. ‘The time has come to sow,’ it would say in spring, as it opened the shutters to let in the light. ‘The time has come to reap,’ it would say in fall, as it lit the fire in the stove. The time has come to milk the cows, or bale the hay. That is, the time has come – not once and for all, but once again – to do that which one has always done in the manner of the sun, the moon and the stars.
This was the rebuttal that Pushkin began formulating that first night when he doused the lantern and climbed into bed. He continued formulating it the next morning when he walked with his wife through the dewy grass on their way to the fields. And he was formulating it still in the fall of that year when they loaded their wagon with all their possessions and set out for Moscow.
On 8 October, the couple arrived in the capital after five days on the road. As they rattled their way along the thoroughfares, we need not belabor their every impression: their first sight of a streetcar, of streetlamps, of a six-story building; of bustling crowds and expansive shops; of fabled landmarks like the Bolshoi and the Kremlin. We needn’t belabor any of that. It is enough to state that their impressions of these sights were diametrically opposed. For while in Irina they stirred a sense of purpose, urgency and excitement, in Pushkin they stirred only dismay.
Having reached the city center, Irina didn’t waste a minute to recover from their journey. Telling Pushkin to wait with the wagon, she quickly got her bearings and disappeared into the crowd. By the end of the first day, she had secured them a one-room apartment in the Arbat where, in place of a portrait of the tsar, she hung a photograph of Vladimir Ilich Lenin in a brand-new frame. By the end of the second day, she had unpacked their belongings and sold their horse and wagon. And by the end of the third, she had secured them both a job at the Red Star Biscuit Collective.
Formerly owned by Crawford & Sons of Edinburgh (Bakers to the Queen since 1856), the Red Star Biscuit Collective was housed in a 50,000-square-foot facility with 500 employees. Behind its gates it boasted two silos of grain and its own flour mill. It had mixing rooms with giant mixers, baking rooms with giant ovens, and packing rooms with conveyor belts that carried the boxes of biscuits right into the backs of the idling trucks.
Irina was initially assigned as an assistant to one of the bakers. But when an oven door came loose, she proved herself so adept with a monkey wrench that she was immediately transferred to the in-house engineers. Within a matter of days, it was commonly said that Irina could tighten the bolts of the conveyors as they rolled along without interruption.
Meanwhile, Pushkin was assigned to the mixing room where the biscuit batter was blended by paddles that clanged against the sides of large metal bowls. Pushkin’s job was to add the vanilla to each batch of biscuits whenever a green light flashed. But having carefully dispensed the vanilla into the appropriate measuring cup, the noise of the machinery was so deafening and the motion of the paddles so hypnotic, Pushkin simply forgot to pour the flavoring in.
At four o’clock, when the official taster came to taste, he didn’t even need to take a bite to know that something was amiss. He could tell from the aroma. ‘What good is a vanilla biscuit that has no taste of vanilla?’ he inquired of Pushkin, rhetorically, before sending an entire day’s output to the dogs. And as for Pushkin, he was reassigned to the sweeping crew.
On his first day with the sweepers, Pushkin was sent with his broom to the cavernous warehouse where the sacks of flour were stacked in towering rows. In all his life, Pushkin had never seen so much flour. Of course, a peasant prays for an ample harvest with enough grain to last the winter, and maybe a bit left over to protect against a drought. But the sacks of flour in the warehouse were so large and piled so high, Pushkin felt like a character in a folk tale who finds himself in the kitchen of a giant where mortal men are dropped into a pie.
However daunting the environment, Pushkin’s job was simple enough. He was to sweep up any flour that had spilled on the floor when the dollies were whisked to the mixing room.
Perhaps it was the general sense of agitation that Pushkin had been feeling since his arrival in the city; perhaps it was the memory of swinging a scythe, a motion that Pushkin had happily performed since his youth; or perhaps it was a congenital muscular disorder that had yet to be diagnosed. Who can say? But whenever Pushkin attempted to sweep the flour that had fallen to the floor, rather than push it into the pan, his motion would kick it into the air. Up it would go in a large white billow settling like a dusting of snow on his shoulders and hair.
‘No, no!’ his foreman would insist, as he grabbed the broom from Pushkin’s hands. ‘Like this!’ And in a few quick strokes the foreman would clear four square feet of flooring without setting a single mote of flour into flight.
A man who was eager to please, Pushkin watched his foreman’s technique with the attention of a surgical apprentice. But as soon as the foreman had turned his back and Pushkin had set his broom to the ground, up into the air the flour went. Such that after three days on sweeping detail, Pushkin was dismissed from the Red Star Biscuit Collective altogether.
‘Dismissed!’ shouted Irina that night in their little apartment. ‘How does one get fired from Communism!’
In the days that followed, Irina might have tried to answer this question, but there were gears to be adjusted and screws to be tightened. What’s more, she had already been elected to the workers’ committee at the factory – where she was known to boost the morale of her comrades by quoting from The Communist Manifesto at the drop of a hat. In other words, she was a Bolshevik through and through.
And Pushkin? He rolled about the city like a marble on a chessboard.
With the ratification of the new constitution in 1918, it was the dawn of the Proletarian Age. It was also a period of the rounding up of enemies, the forced procurement of agricultural output, the prohibition of private trade and the rationing of essentials. Well, what did you expect? A frosted cake and your pillows fluffed by a housemaid?
Between her twelve-hour shift at the plant and her duties on the workers’ committee, Irina hadn’t a minute to spare. So, as she was headed off one morning, she thrust the ration cards for bread, milk and sugar into her idle husband’s hands and told him, in no uncertain terms, to replenish the cupboards before she returned at ten o’clock that night. Then she pulled the door shut with such force that Vladimir Ilich swung on his hook.
As Irina’s shoes sounded down the stairs, our hero stood where she had left him staring wide-eyed at the door. Without moving, he listened to her exit the building and walk to the trolley. He listened to the trolley clatter through the city and the sound of the whistle as Irina marched through the gates of the collective. Only when he heard the conveyor belts beginning to roll did it occur to Pushkin to utter the phrase ‘Yes, dear’. Then, with the ration tickets firmly in hand, he donned his cap and ventured out into the streets.
As he walked along, Pushkin anticipated his task with a certain amount of dread. In his mind’s eye, he could see a crowded shop where Muscovites pointed, shouted and shoved. He could see a wall of shelves lined with brightly colored boxes and a counterman who asked what you wanted, told you to be quick about it, then set the wrong thing down on the counter with a definitive thump before shouting, ‘Next! ’
Imagine Pushkin’s surprise when he arrived at the bakery on Battleship Potemkin Street – his first scheduled stop – and found the setting as quiet as a crèche. In place of the pointing, shouting and shoving there was a line, an orderly line. Composed mostly of women between the ages of thirty and eighty, it stretched gracefully from the doorway and made its way politely around the bend.
‘Is this the line for the bakery?’ he asked an older woman.
Before she could answer, another standing nearby gestured forcibly with her thumb. ‘The end of the line is at the end of the line, comrade. In the back of the back.’
Offering his thanks, Pushkin turned the corner and followed the line three whole blocks to the back of the back. Having dutifully taken his place, Pushkin learned from the two women in front of him that the bakery offered each customer only one product: a loaf of black bread. While the women reported this news in annoyance, Pushkin was heartened by it. If there was only one loaf of black bread per customer, there wouldn’t have to be any squinting or selecting or thumping down of items. Pushkin would wait in line, receive his loaf and bring it home, just like he’d been instructed.
As Pushkin was having this thought, a young woman appeared at his side.
‘Is this the end of the line?’ she asked.
‘It is!’ exclaimed Pushkin with a smile, glad to have the chance to be of service.
In the next two hours, Pushkin advanced as many blocks.
For some of us, maybe most of us, the ticking of these minutes would have sounded like the drip from a faucet in the middle of the night. But not for Pushkin. His time in the line made him no more anxious than would the wait for a seedling to sprout or the hay to change hue. Besides, while he waited he could engage the women around him in one of his favorite conversations.
‘It is a beautiful day, isn’t it?’ he said to the four of them. ‘The sun could not be shining more brightly, nor the sky a bluer shade of blue. Although, in the afternoon, I suspect we may be in for a bit of rain . . .’
The weather! I hear you exclaim with a roll of the eyes. This is his favorite conversation?
Yes, yes, I know. When God the Father is smiling on a nation, when average incomes are on the rise, food is plentiful and soldiers are biding their time with card games in their barracks, nothing seems worthier of condescension than a discussion of the weather. At dinner parties and afternoon teas, those who routinely turn to the topic are deemed boring, even insufferable. The possibility of precipitation seems worthy as a topic only to those without the imagination or intelligence to speak of the latest literature, the cinema and the international situation – or, in short, the times. But when a society is in turmoil, a discussion of the weather doesn’t seem quite so insufferable . . .
‘Why, yes,’ agreed one of the women with a smile. ‘It is a beautiful day.’
‘Though,’ observed another, ‘it does seem from the clouds behind the cathedral that you might be right about the rain.’
And, just like that, the time seemed to pass a little more quickly.
At 1 p.m. that afternoon (with his loaf of bread tucked under his coat) Pushkin made his way to Maxim Gorky Street, where he had been instructed to obtain the sugar. Once again, he felt a flash of anxiety as he neared the shop, though this time the anxiety was countered by the slightest hint of hope. And what did he find when he arrived at his destination? By the grace of God, another line!
Naturally, as it was later in the day, the line at the grocer’s was longer than the one at the bakery had been. But the brief rain which, in fact, had fallen on Moscow from 12.15 to 12.45, had cooled the streets and freshened the air. And as Pushkin approached, two women he had met in the bread line gave him a friendly wave. So, he took his place with a general sense of well-being.
Across the street from where Pushkin was standing happened to be the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, as fine an example of neoclassical architecture as existed in all of Russia.
‘Isn’t that building delightful,’ Pushkin said to an old woman who had joined him at the end of the line. ‘Just look at those scrolly things at the top of the columns, and the little statues tucked beneath the eaves.’ And she, who had lived in the neighborhood for over forty years and who had passed the building a thousand times without giving it a second thought, had to admit, upon closer consideration, that it was nothing short of delightful.
Thus, time in the grocery line also began to pass a little more quickly. In fact, it passed so quickly that Pushkin hardly noticed the afternoon slipping away . . .
That night when Irina returned home, Pushkin was standing by the door in such a state of trepidation that the second she saw him she let out an anticipatory sigh.
‘What has happened now?’ she demanded.
Having the good sense not to mention the fine weather, or the architecture of the conservatory, or the friendly women whom he’d met, Pushkin explained to his wife that the lines for bread and sugar had been so long that there hadn’t been time to wait in the line for milk.
When Pushkin held out the bread and sugar as evidence of his best intentions, he could see his wife clench her jaw, lower her eyebrows and close her fists. But even as Pushkin prepared for the worst, he saw his wife’s eyeballs begin to shift. Suddenly, she found herself wrestling with her husband’s failure to complete three simple tasks on the one hand and the implied shortcomings of Communism on the other. Were she to express her anger at Pushkin, wouldn’t that in some way suggest her acknowledgment of the unacceptability of having to wait in line for one’s bread and sugar and milk? Were she to cuff him on the head, wouldn’t she to some degree be cuffing the revolution? Sometimes, one plus one does not so easily sum to two.
‘Very good, husband,’ she said at last. ‘You can get the milk tomorrow.’
And in that moment, Pushkin felt a great sense of joy. For to serve the ones we love and receive their approval in return, need life be any more complicated than that?
It didn’t take long for the citizens of Moscow to realize that if you had no choice but to stand in line, then Pushkin was the man to stand next to. Graced with a gentle disposition, he was never boorish or condescending, neither full of opinions nor full of himself. Once he had commented on the fineness of the weather or the beauty of a building, he was most likely to ask about your children. And so sincere was his interest that his eyes would brighten with satisfaction at the first suggestion of a success and cloud with tears at any hint of a setback.
While for his part, Pushkin had settled into city life with a growing sense of contentment. Waking in the mornings, he would take a glance at the calendar and think, Ah, it is Tuesday. The time has come to wait in line for bread. Or Is it already the 28th? Once again, the time has come to go to Yakusky Street to wait in line for tea. And thus, the months would have run into years and the years into decades without cause for remark, but for an unanticipated occurrence in the winter of 1921.
On the afternoon in question, after waiting three hours for a head of cabbage, Pushkin was about to proceed to a small department store on Tverskaya Street to wait for two spools of thread when an acquaintance hailed him from the back of the cabbage line. A thirty-year-old mother of four, she was clearly in a state of distress.
‘Nadezhda!’ our hero proclaimed. ‘What is it?’
‘It is my youngest,’ she replied. ‘He is bedridden with a fever. And while I need to pick up a head of cabbage for my family’s soup, I fear that where I should be standing is in the line at the pharmacy!’ Pushkin’s expression reflected all the anxiety in this poor woman’s heart. He looked to the sky and noted from the position of the sun – which was dipping behind the rooftops – that while Nadezhda would have time for one line or the other, she would never have time for both. Without a second thought, Pushkin looked to the eight women behind Nadezhda (who had all been leaning forward to hear the exchange).
‘Perhaps these fine ladies wouldn’t mind if I were to hold your place while you visited the pharmacy. As it is Tuesday, the line there shouldn’t be too long. And once you’ve obtained Sasha’s medicine, you could hurry back and resume your spot.’
Now, were you or I to have had made this simple suggestion, it would almost certainly have been met with looks of disdain and a reminder that a line is a line, not a carousel that you can hop on and off to your heart’s content! But, at one time or another, all of these women had waited with Pushkin and experienced his gentleness of spirit. So, without objection, they made room for him as the young mother hurried away.
Just as Pushkin had anticipated, the line at the pharmacy was only thirty people long. So, when Nadezhda reached the cash register with the medication in hand, feeling a burst of goodwill she splurged on a bag of brightly colored candy sticks. And when she resumed her place in the cabbage line, she overcame Pushkin’s objections and insisted that he take a handful of the confections as a token of her gratitude.
Times of upheaval throw off orphans like sparks. Wherever the grinder meets the metal, they shoot in the air in dazzling arcs, then either bounce once on the pavement and disappear or settle in the hay and smolder. On a morning in 1923, one such castoff – a boy named Petya – sat on the cold stone steps of a decommissioned church with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his palms as he aimlessly watched the breadline across the street.
To the uninitiated, a breadline might seem a promising spot for an urchin. After all, most of those waiting were women who had cared for offspring of their own – an experience that was almost certain to trigger feelings of compassion toward a motherless child. Well, maybe so. But as Petya could tell you from experience, young lads who approached the women in the breadline with their hands outstretched received a twist of the ear.
On this particular morning, while Petya eyed the progress of the women with the watchful resignation of a well-trained dog, something extraordinary caught his attention. As a man near the front of the line was chatting amiably with the women at his side, a young wife in a yellow kerchief appeared from around the corner with a bag in her arms. When she approached, the man doffed his cap, greeted her warmly and stepped out of the line in order to give her his place.
Now, if the mothers in the breadline were prone to twist the ear of an orphan, they were sure to give a line-cutter a dressing-down she’d not soon forget. But the women didn’t shout or shake their fists. They made room for the newcomer. Then, as the man in the cap bid them all goodbye, the young wife reached into her bag and offered him a link of dried sausage. Upon seeing it, the man assured her that this gesture was unnecessary. But when the young wife insisted (insisted, mind you!), he accepted the sausage with his humble thanks and another doff of the cap.
Petya, who was now sitting as upright as a teacher’s pet, watched the man in the cap get summoned by a woman farther back in the line. As she pointed this way and that, the man listened with apparent sympathy. Then, when he nodded his head, she darted off and he assumed her place without incident.
Petya ended up spending the rest of the day on the church’s steps, and during those hours he saw the man in the cap go through the line three separate times on behalf of three separate women, receiving the link of sausage, a can of beans and two cups of sugar!
When at last the baker latched his door and the man headed home, Petya followed in hot pursuit.
‘Hey, doffer,’ he called.
Turning in some surprise, Pushkin looked down at the boy.
‘Are you calling to me, young man?’
‘You and nobody else. Listen. I’ve been around this town all my life. And I’ve seen my share of smooth-talking schemes. But what sort of racket is this?’
‘Racket?’ asked Pushkin.
With the narrowed eyes of the worldly, Petya was about to press his point when a fifty-year-old apparatchik approached out of breath. From the manner in which this fellow’s belly strained against his vest, you could tell that his bread came buttered on both sides. Yet, he addressed the doffer with an unmistakable air of respect.
‘Pushkin! Thank goodness! I was worried I might have missed you!’
Noticing Petya, Mr Bread-and-Butter put an arm over Pushkin’s shoulders, turned him ninety degrees and continued in a lowered voice.
‘I have it on good authority, my friend, that a shipment of electric lamps will be arriving in the illumination department of GUM tomorrow afternoon. Needless to say, I am in meetings most of the day. Do you think you might have time to hold a place for me until I can get there?’
Standing on his toes and leaning to his right, Petya could see that this Pushkin, who was listening with the utmost attention, was suddenly overcome with regret.
‘Comrade Krakovitz, I am afraid that I have already promised Marya Borevna that I will stand in line for her at the butcher’s while she is at Gastronome #4 getting figs in honor of her husband’s name day.’
Krakovitz dropped his shoulders with such disappointment that he nearly burst his buttons. But when he turned to go, Petya piped up.
‘Comrade Pushkin,’ he said. ‘Surely, we cannot afford to have the gentleman preparing for his meetings without the benefit of electric light! As your assistant, perhaps I could stand in line at the butcher’s, while you stand in line at GUM.’
‘Why, of course!’ said Krakovitz, his face lighting up like the lamp he was hoping to procure. ‘How about it, Pushkin?’
So, the very next day, while Pushkin waited at GUM, Petya waited at the butcher’s shop. And when Marya Borevna came to assume her spot, as a token of her gratitude, she handed Petya a fistful of figs.
‘How nice of Marya to share with you some of her fruit,’ said Pushkin, when Petya came to GUM to give his report. ‘You have certainly earned them, my boy.’ But Petya would have none of that. He insisted that the two of them split the figs 50/50, on the grounds that while he had performed the labor, the business plan was Pushkin’s.
Thus, it began. Within a week, Petya was standing in two or three lines a day, so that Pushkin could stand in two or three more. A professionally minded lad, Petya took pains to behave exactly as Pushkin would. That is, he never expressed the slightest impatience; rather, he remarked on the weather and the building across the street; he asked about progeny, either nodding his head in approval or shaking his head in sympathy as the circumstances demanded; and in parting, he always doffed his cap. In this manner, Petya was quickly accepted as Pushkin’s proxy and he was welcomed just as warmly by all the women who waited.
If there is a terrain conducive to apple trees, within a few generations there will be all manner of apple trees growing branch to branch. If there is a neighborhood conducive to poetry, all manner of poets will soon be scribbling side by side. And so it was with the lines of Soviet Moscow. At any given moment, across the city could now be found lines for staples and lines for sundries. There were lines to board buses and lines to buy books. There were lines to obtain apartments, school placements and union memberships. In those years, if there was something worth having, it was worth standing in line for. But of all the various lines, the ones that Petya kept his closest eye on were the lines that served the elites.
As a younger man, Petya had assumed that there was no such thing. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of climbing over the shoulders of your fellow men? To be free of the lines once and for all? But if the elites didn’t need to stand in line to get what everyone else was waiting for, they had their own reasons to stand in line. They wanted bigger apartments. They wanted a car and driver.
They wanted a fur coat for their mistress and a dacha on the outskirts of town.
One didn’t have to read an annotated copy of Das Kapital to understand that those who wanted things of greater value were likely to express a greater sense of gratitude whenever their wishes came true. And since you can’t break off a chunk of a dacha or divvy up a cashmere coat, the elites tended to show their gratitude in the form of cash – and often in foreign currencies!
But whatever their compositions – long or short, shy or shifty, fish or fowl – Moscow had more lines to stand in than Pushkin and Petya had feet. So Petya recruited a few of his fellows, and then a few more. Such that by 1925, Pushkin had ten boys waiting in thirty lines, each of them handing tokens of gratitude up the chain of command.
The human race is notoriously adaptive, but there is nothing that a human will adapt to more quickly than an improved standard of living. Thus, while Irina had arrived in Moscow dedicated heart and soul to the upending of the social order – that is, to the defeat of the privileged and the victory of the proletariat – as the years unfolded, her understanding of how this might best be achieved evolved . . .
The evolution began, naturally enough, back in 1921 with that handful of candy sticks. When Pushkin had returned home with the cabbage in one hand and confections in the other, Irina was prepared to berate him from top to bottom for wasting hard-earned money on the fancies of a child. But when Pushkin explained how he had come by the candies, she was stymied. Her husband’s willingness to wait in line for a mother-in-need seemed comradely to the core; and since he hadn’t anticipated receiving the candies, one could hardly brand him a speculator. So, Irina decided to save her top-to-bottom for another day. And when Pushkin came home later that week with a sausage, after a moment’s hesitation Irina nodded that this too was perfectly correct. After all, hadn’t Lenin himself predicted that the successful transition to Communism would result in a little more sausage for us all?
As sausages evolved into cloaks and cloaks into cash, Irina began to recognize another achievement of Communism – through the transformation of her husband. For when they had lived in the country, Irina had always considered her husband to be a man without energy, intention or sense. But it had become increasingly clear that Pushkin had merely seemed that way. Once her husband had been freed by Bolshevism from the quasi-serfdom of the old regime, he had been revealed as a man of considerable talents; and not only did he help wives and widows obtain their necessities, he had virtually adopted a whole generation of orphans and turned them into productive citizens! So, with a touch of moral satisfaction, Irina allocated the sausages to the pantry, the cloaks to the closet and the cash to the bureau’s bottom drawer.
Then one day in 1926, Comrade Krakovitz, who happened to be an undersecretary in the Department of Residential Accommodations, asked if Pushkin would wait in line for a case of French champagne. When Pushkin succeeded, Comrade Krakovitz was loath to show his appreciation by giving up a bottle; so, instead, with the stroke of a pen he reassigned Pushkin to a generous apartment in the Nikitsky Towers – a brand-new complex on the banks of the Moskva River.
Later that night, when Pushkin got home and explained to Irina what had happened, Irina soberly considered the turn of events. It was a common misconception – or so her thought process unfolded – that Communism guaranteed an identical life for all. What Communism actually guaranteed is that, in place of lineage and luck, the state would determine who should get what after taking careful account of the greater good. From this simple principle, it followed that a comrade who plays a greater role in attaining the greater good for the greater number of people should have greater resources at his own disposal. Just ask Nikolai Bukharin, editor of Pravda and champion of the peasant, who lived in a four-room suite at the Metropol Hotel!
Through this indisputable logic, Irina came to see their improved situation as the natural course of events; and she now often referred to Pushkin as ‘comrade husband’.
Just as the poet in Pushkin’s soul had once written odes to sprouting shoots and summer rain, he now turned his verses to pigeons that perched on pediments and trolleys that rattled in the lane. Which is to say, once again Pushkin’s life with Irina was so satisfactory he wouldn’t know what to wish for. That is, until 2 May 1929.
Earlier that week, the secret police had swept up five intellectuals and quickly convicted them of counterrevolutionary activities under Article 58 of the Criminal Code. Once these traitors were safely on their way to Siberia, a team was sent to their apartments with orders to gather up their books and deliver them to the municipal furnace. Now, it just so happens that as this disposal truck laden down with literature was taking a left onto Tverskaya Street at full speed, the centrifugal force from the turn sent one of the books flying at the very moment that our hero was about to step from the curb such that it spun twice in the air and landed at his feet.
As Pushkin wasn’t much of a reader, he was about to step over the book and continue on his way, but something about it caught his eye. Bending over, he picked it off the ground. Then, having looked once to his left and once to his right, he tore off the cover and stuffed it in his pocket, having discarded the rest of the book.
Fifteen minutes later, when Pushkin arrived home, he called out to Irina. Hearing no reply, he went to their bedroom and closed the door. But realizing that he wouldn’t hear his wife arrive if the bedroom door were closed, he opened it again. Then he sat on the bed and removed the book cover from his coat.
The book appeared to be in English, a language which Pushkin neither spoke nor read – so he was not intrigued by the title. What had caught Pushkin’s eye was the black-and-white photograph that spanned the cover. It was a picture of a young woman lying on a chaise longue in a long white dress with a double strand of beads draped around her neck. Her hair was blonde, her eyebrows thin, and her lips delicate and dark. Simply put, she was the most beautiful woman that Pushkin had ever seen.
But she was not alone.
With an arm behind her head and a smile on her face, she was looking at a man who was seated with his back to the camera – a man in a tuxedo with a drink in his hand and a cigarette within reach.
For the first time in his life, Pushkin felt a pang of envy. It was not for the young couple’s wealth that he felt envious, nor for the glamorous serenity that they seemed to be sharing on this terrace in the fabled city of New York. No. What made him envious was the smile that the beautiful young woman was directing toward her companion. In all Pushkin’s life, he had never imagined being smiled upon in such a way by such a woman.
In the weeks that followed, when Pushkin got home he would sit on his bed with the door ajar, take the folded picture from his wallet and look at it anew. Often, he would notice something he hadn’t noticed before – like the white roses that grew along the terrace, or the sparkling bracelet on the woman’s wrist, or the high-heeled shoes on her slender feet. And late at night when he couldn’t sleep, Pushkin found himself imagining that he was the man in the chair; that he was the man with a drink in his hand and a cigarette within reach, being smiled upon by this beautiful young woman in a dress of white.
Some months later, while Pushkin was waiting in line to buy a soup bone, he happened to be next to a gentleman in his late fifties by the name of Sergei Litvinov. After they had shared their views about the approach of autumn, the gentleman happened to remark that he worked at a local elementary school where he was responsible for sweeping the floors.
‘Bless my soul,’ exclaimed Pushkin. ‘I too was once a sweeper of floors!’
‘Were you, now?’ said Litvinov with reciprocal enthusiasm. And as the two men discussed the differing aerodynamics of paper scraps and motes of flour the minutes went jogging along. But when Pushkin asked if the gentleman had always been a sweeper, Litvinov solemnly shook his head. It seems that in the decades before the war, Litvinov had been a portrait painter of some renown. In fact, two of his portraits had hung in the Tretyakov Gallery. But as he had primarily painted members of the aristocracy, in 1920 the Moscow Union of Artists had deemed him aesthetically unreliable and revoked his license to paint. Thus, to make ends meet, he had taken the job as a sweeper.
‘After all,’ said Litvinov with a smile, ‘isn’t a broom just a very large paintbrush?’
Pushkin had never been to the Tretyakov Gallery, or any museum for that matter. But he had knelt before many an icon in his day, and had always marveled at an artist’s ability to render the human face in such convincing detail. To possess such a gift and no longer be allowed to put it to use struck Pushkin as heartbreaking and he could not help but ask if Litvinov felt some resentment.
Litvinov responded with another smile.
‘I have lived under these circumstances for nine years, my friend. That is a long time to give one’s life over to resentment.’
Then after a moment of reflection, Litvinov went on.
‘My grandmother was fond of saying that whatever one chooses to do with one’s life, one still must do one’s part. And though the life of a painter may seem frivolous to some, whenever I would unveil a finished work before my subject and see their expression, I knew that I had fulfilled my grandmother’s maxim. But you see, my friend, I was only half-kidding when I compared my paintbrush to my broom. For – perhaps to my own surprise – whenever I see the children running down the freshly swept hallways of the schoolhouse, I feel that once again I am doing my part.’
Though Pushkin was not familiar with the word magnanimity, he knew well enough that he was in its presence when he spoke to this painter-sweeper, such that upon parting, he shook Litvinov’s hand with feelings of the deepest admiration.
But when Pushkin ran into Litvinov thirty days later, the gentleman looked like he had aged as many years. A parent, it seems, had filed a complaint with the District Educational Committee – that a painter of tsarist cronies should not be working in a schoolhouse filled with children. The next day, Litvinov’s little apartment had been searched by the police, then he’d been taken to the Lubyanka, where he was held for three days of questioning. Though no charges were brought, upon Litvinov’s return to the schoolhouse he was reprimanded by the headmaster for his absenteeism; the teachers who had been in the habit of chatting with him as he emptied their waste baskets, now remained silent; and worst of all, the students who had once returned his wave in the hallways, now averted their eyes.
‘Back in ’17, when my fellows folded their easels and fled to Paris, I shook my head. “Our calling is to paint the faces of our countrymen,” I said, “with all of their whims and worries, all of their virtues and vices. What matters it to us, whether they wear grand mustaches or a pointed goatee?” So I said at the time, but now . . .’
Litvinov was quiet for a moment. Then, with a heavy heart, he acknowledged that while sweeping the floors, he had begun to daydream of standing in a railway station with an overnight bag in one hand and a bright yellow card in the other – a bright yellow card marked by a crimson stamp.
Pushkin’s eyes grew wide.
‘A stamp in the shape of St Basil’s?’
‘Yes,’ admitted Litvinov with a hint of shame. ‘From the Agency of Expatriate Affairs.’
Now, of all the lines in Moscow, the line that was the most elusive, the most daunting, the most insurmountable was the one that led to the Agency of Expatriate Affairs – that department in which one applied for an exit visa from Russia. Just finding the line was a challenge. For the agency’s office was located deep within the Kremlin, up two and down three flights of stairs, at the end of a long series of lefts and rights, on a narrow corridor with forty doors that each looked alike.
Should you be lucky enough to navigate this maze and locate the office, once inside you were handed a pencil, a twenty-page form, and were directed to the back of the line. Naturally, the form requested your name, address, occupation and date of birth, along with your educational history, religious upbringing and social origin. But in addition, it required you to list the names, patronymics, diminutives and other endearments for all family members alongside their ages, sexes and professions; it required your history of ailments, infirmities and treatments; your involvements with the judicial system whether as a plaintiff, defendant or witness; the sources of your income and the sum of your savings; etc. At the conclusion of this exhaustive survey came the essay questions: What is the country to which you want to travel? Have you ever traveled there before and why? For what purpose do you wish to travel there now? And, more to the point, why would you want to leave Russia in the first place!
After waiting several days (which was just as well, since it took several days to fill out the form) you would reach the little window where you could submit your application. The clerk, in turn, would carefully grade it, taking into consideration your thoroughness, clarity and penmanship. Should the clerk award you a grade of D or F then, congratulations, your application was torn to shreds and you were sent to the back of the line. Should you be given a B or C, you would be handed a new pencil along with instructions of how to correct your submission – while everyone waited behind you. But were you one of the fortunate few who completed his application flawlessly on the very first go, you were ushered to an interior office where a caseworker sat behind a little metal desk with your application in hand.
Starting at the top, the caseworker would ask you every single question anew, presumably in search of discrepancies. At any point in the interview, the raise of an eyebrow or a truncated cough could signal that you were on your way back to the end of the line. But should you survive the interview, you would be asked to wait as your file was sent upstairs for consideration by an untold number of scrutineers. Only if every single one of them initialed the application to indicate they found no cause for concern would it circle its way back to the caseworker’s desk, where it would receive that crimson stamp which opened, for a moment, the gates of the Soviet Union.
Though, naturally enough, most applications were refused, there were well-known stories of whole families making their way to Paris or London with the implicit blessing of the Politburo. But on what grounds these lucky few were allowed to leave remained a mystery. One citizen seemed to be granted passage on account of his spotless record as a Communist and his extended family in Berlin; while another was refused his visa because he was a spotless Communist with relatives in Berlin. Your visa could be stamped or rejected on the grounds that you were or were not a scientist, were or were not hard-working, were or were not a Jew. So unpredictable was the decision-making of the department that rumors circulated of a locked room in a sub-basement where ten colorful wheels like those in a carnival would be spun every morning to determine the ten criteria that on that day would result in the awarding of a visa!
‘Yes,’ admitted Litvinov with a hint of shame. ‘From the Agency of Expatriate Affairs.’
Pushkin studied his new friend. ‘If one cannot sweep in Moscow,’ he said after a moment, ‘then one should paint in Paris.’
Litvinov smiled in appreciation of Pushkin’s support, but sadly shook his head.
‘They say that waiting in that line can take weeks, and Headmaster Spitsky has made it perfectly clear that any further instances of “absenteeism” on my part will result in immediate dismissal . . .’
‘I could stand in line for you.’
‘Ah, my friend, you are too kind. But no one even knows where the line is.’
‘I know exactly where it is. And besides,’ Pushkin concluded with the utmost satisfaction, ‘we all must do our part!’
The line at the Agency of Expatriate Affairs was quieter than any line in which Pushkin had ever waited. So anxious were those assembled that any effort at friendly conversation was immediately cut short by a frown. Thus, after three days of silence, Pushkin decided to fill out one of the agency’s notorious forms simply to pass the time.
But what a delightful process it proved to be!
Without any desire to leave Russia, Pushkin felt no anxiety as to the political implications of his answers. Rather, he saw each question as an invitation to recall some heart-warming aspect of his past. Like his childhood in the village of Gogolitsky, where his older brother had taught him how to trap rabbits and where his mother would sing as she hung the laundry out to dry. But best of all was when it asked about his work experience. Here, Pushkin described how he and Irina would till their acres and harvest their harvest; and how in the lilac light they would journey home to their little table where the cabbage soup awaited. What wonderful years those had been! In fact, Pushkin had so many memories worth sharing that they spilled into the margins and wrapped around the page. And when he read the final question – Why do you want to leave Russia? – without hesitation, he answered: I don’t.
After eighteen days of waiting in line, Pushkin called on Litvinov with the good news that he would reach the clerk’s window on the following day by noon.
‘Then I will be there at eight!’ assured a grateful Litvinov.
But on the following day, Litvinov was not there at 8.00. He was not there at 9.00 or 10.00 or 11.00; and he was not there at 11.35 when the clerk at the window rang his little bell and called out, ‘Next!’
Unsure of what to do, Pushkin looked back at the door, but the citizen who was standing behind him gave him a shove and sent him stumbling toward the window.
‘Come on, come on,’ said the clerk. ‘We haven’t got all day. Give us your form.’
At that moment, Pushkin would have given the clerk Litvinov’s form if he’d had it; but the painter-sweeper had kept it overnight in order to double-check his answers. So, with no other choice, Pushkin produced the form that he had filled out to pass the time.
When the clerk saw that Pushkin had folded the form down the middle to fit in his pocket, he scowled. Laying it on the counter he made a great show of smoothing it open to indicate to all the applicants that the folding of forms was well out of bounds. Once the form was flat, he picked up his pencil and began reviewing Pushkin’s answers, ready to pounce on the slightest error. But as he read, he found himself nodding in spite of himself; and when he reached the answer that wrapped around the page – a breach of protocol that would normally have guaranteed a shredding – the clerk let out a sigh. Not a sigh of exasperation, you understand, but a sigh of such sentimental satisfaction that he marked the passage with a star. But when the clerk reached the penultimate page, he looked up at Pushkin in surprise.
‘You have not completed question 110.’
Pushkin looked down at the document as surprised as the clerk.
‘Yes,’ said the clerk. ‘Where one indicates the place to which one wishes to go.’
Pushkin, who must have skipped the question in error, didn’t know what to say, for he had never given it a moment’s thought. With the clerk staring at him expectantly, Pushkin racked his brain. Irina, he seemed to remember, had always wanted to visit the Black Sea, but that was in Russia . . . The man who was next in line began audibly tapping his foot, which only made Pushkin’s task more difficult. Then, suddenly, he thought of the lovely young woman in his wallet.
‘New York City?’ he suggested, tentatively.
Not only did the clerk offer no rebuke to Pushkin, he wrote the answer in the allotted space himself then waved Pushkin into an adjacent room. An hour or so later, a door opened and Pushkin was led not to the office of a caseworker, but to the director of the whole department. The director, who was a heavyset fellow with bags under his eyes, signaled that Pushkin should sit. In accordance with normal procedure, he was supposed to review Pushkin’s form from the very beginning in search of oversights and discrepancies. Instead, he turned to the fourteenth page.
‘Repeat for me, if you would, your history of work experience.’
Pushkin had not bothered to memorize the words he’d used in his answers, but he hadn’t needed to – for he had memorized them with his life. So, he recounted to the director how he and Irina had tilled the soil row by row. He told of the crickets at twilight and the golden hues of harvest. And the director, who was raised among the wheat fields of Ukraine, wiped a tear from his eye with as unsentimental a knuckle as had ever been fashioned by God. Then, flipping back a few pages to where Pushkin had described his youth in Gogolitsky, the director spun the form around and tapped at a question.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Read this one.’
Then he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes so that he could listen with greater care as Pushkin related his memories one by one.
Who knows what criteria the ten colorful wheels in the sub-basement of the Kremlin landed upon that morning after spinning round and round? But when Pushkin rose from his chair, he received a shake of the hand, a kiss on both cheeks and the stamp in the shape of St Basil’s.