A Gloom Descends Upon the Ancient Steps

A Novelistic Idyll

by Aleksandr Chudakov

Translated by Timothy D. Sergay

   To Sergei Solovyov

The day's false shadows scatter in the dusk.
Distinct and high, the bells peal overhead.
A glow appears upon the old church steps.
Their stone is live—and waits to sense your tread.

You'll pass this way, and touch this cold, bare stone,
Dressed in grim holiness of ancient days.
Perhaps you'll drop a single flower of spring
Here, in this gloom, beneath the icons' gaze.

The vague, rose shadows lengthen in the dusk,
Distinct and high, the bells peal overhead.
A gloom descends upon the ancient steps...
I am aglow—I wait to sense your tread.

—Aleksandr Blok, Jan. 4, 1902
"Begut nevernye, dnevnye teni...,"
translated by Timothy D. Sergay


1. Arm-Wrestling in Chebachinsk

Grandfather was very strong. When he was working in the kitchen garden or whittling spade handles (for relaxation, he would always whittle handles—there were enough of them piled in a corner of the barn to last us for decades), dressed in his faded shirt with the sleeves rolled up high, Anton would say to himself something like “The rounded bulges of his muscles rolled up and down his arm under the skin” (Anton was fond of expressing things in bookish style). But even now, when Grandfather was over ninety, when it was a strain for him to reach for the glass on his bedside table, the familiar ball of his bicep still glided up under the rolled sleeve of his undershirt, and Anton had to grin.

“Think that’s funny?” said Grandfather. “Think I’ve gone all weak? He’s old now, but he used to be young, is that it? Why don’t you just ask me ‘So we’re dying now, are we?’ like a character from that vagabond writer of yours? And I could say, ‘Yes, I’m dying!’”

But now Anton was seeing his grandfather’s arm as it was in the past, when he used to bend nails or roofing iron with his bare hands. He could see it even more clearly poised on the edge of a table covered with a holiday tablecloth, with the dishes pushed aside—could it really have been over thirty years ago?

Yes: that had been at the wedding of Pereplyótkin’s son, who was just back from the war. On one side of the table sat Kuzmá Pereplyotkin himself, the blacksmith; opposite him, smiling, looking embarrassed but not surprised, rose the slaughterhouse titan Bondaryenko, whose arm the blacksmith had just pinned to the tablecloth in a contest that is today known as arm-wrestling, but in those days had no name at all. There was nothing to be surprised about: in the town of Chebachinsk there wasn’t a single man whose arm Pereplyotkin couldn’t pin to the table. The same could apparently be said of Pereplyotkin’s younger brother, who used to work at his shop as a hammerer before he was arrested and died in the camps.

Grandfather carefully hung his black Boston-tweed jacket on the back of the chair. The jacket was the last remnant of a three-piece suit made before World War I, turned twice but still presentable (incredible: Mama wasn’t even in existence yet, but Grandfather must have been dressed to the nines in that same jacket) and rolled up the sleeve of his cambric shirt, the last of the two dozen he’d taken out of Vilnius in 1915. Planting his elbow firmly on the table, he joined his palm to his opponent’s, in which it was instantly lost as the blacksmith closed his enormously broad hand around Grandfather’s.

One man’s hand was black, deeply grimed with ash and roped with veins more oxlike than human (“The veins bulging on his hands looked like cables,” Anton thought to himself). The other’s was half as large and white, and if blueish veins were faintly visible deep beneath the skin, that was something Anton alone knew, since he remembered those hands better than he did his own mother’s. Anton alone knew also the steely strength of those hands and those fingers, which could loosen the nuts on a cartwheel without a wrench. Only one other person he knew had fingers that strong—Grandfather’s second daughter, Aunt Tanya. During the war, when she was deported as a chesírka (a ChSIR, “family member of a traitor to the motherland”) to a remote village with her three young children, she’d worked as a dairymaid. Back then no one had ever heard of electric milkers, and during certain months she would milk twenty cows dry a day—in two goes at each cow. A Moscow friend of Anton’s, who was in the meat and dairy industry, used to say that was all just talk, that it was impossible, but it was true. Aunt Tanya’s fingers were gnarled now, but they could still grip like a vise. One time a neighbor, in greeting her, teasingly gave her hand an extra-hard squeeze. She squeezed his back with such crushing force that it swelled up and ached for a week.

The guests had already drunk the first case of moonshine; the place was getting loud.

“Look at this—the proletariat’s taking on the intelligentsia!”

“So who’s our proletarian—Pereplyotkin?” Anton knew that Pereplyotkin came from a family of deported kulaks.

“And Lvovich here is supposed to be the Soviet intelligentsia?”

“It’s Grandma in their family who comes from nobility. His people are all priests.”

A volunteer referee checked to make sure both men’s elbows were properly aligned, and the match began.

The ball of Grandfather’s bicep withdrew at first deep into his rolled sleeve, then glided back just into view and stopped. The cable-like veins on the blacksmith’s arm bulged beneath his skin. Grandfather’s bicep lengthened very slightly and came to resemble an enormous egg (“an ostrich egg,” thought Anton, educated boy that he was). The blacksmith’s veins stood out even more; you could see how knotty they were. Grandfather’s arm began slowly declining toward the table. Those who, like Anton, were standing to Pereplyotkin’s right, could no longer see any part of Grandfather’s arm; it was completely obscured by Pereplyotkin’s.

“Kuzma! Kuzma!” shouted those same guests.

“I’d wait to cheer if I were you …” Anton recognized the rasping voice of Professor Riesenkampf.

Grandfather’s arm stopped declining. Pereplyotkin stared in surprise. He must have poured it on then, because a new vein began bulging, this time on his forehead.

Grandfather’s palm began slowly climbing—higher, higher, and then both forearms were again standing vertically, as if the match hadn’t even started, as if no vein had yet bulged on the blacksmith’s forehead, and no sweat had broken out on Grandfather’s.

The two arms began vibrating almost imperceptibly, like a double-shafted lever attached to some powerful engine. The lever tilted this way and that, now this way again, now back slightly the other way. And again it was perfectly still, but for that barely perceptible vibration.

Suddenly the lever came alive again, and began declining. But this time Grandfather’s arm was on top! Yet when it was hovering barely above the tabletop, the lever suddenly reversed direction and climbed back to vertical, where it remained for a long while.

“A tie! A tie!” the guests shouted, first from one side of the table, then from the other. “Call it a tie!”

“Grandfather,” Anton said, handing him his water glass, “that time at the wedding, after the war, you could have pinned Pereplyotkin, you know…”


“So why didn’t you?”

“What for? For him, it was a matter of professional pride. Why embarrass the man?”

A few days earlier, as Grandfather was lying in his hospital bed, just before the doctor and his retinue of med students came to examine him, he’d taken off his cross pendant and hidden it in his bedside table. He’d crossed himself twice, and after a glance at Anton, smiled feebly. Grandfather’s brother, Father Pavel, used to say that as a young man, Grandfather liked to show off his strength. If the men were unloading rye, he’d elbow one of them aside, heave a two-hundred-pound sack of rye onto one shoulder, heave another onto his other shoulder, and walk off, ramrod-straight, to the granary. But it was utterly impossible to picture Grandfather showing off like that.

He despised any form of exercise, which he regarded as useless both for himself and for the homestead: better to chop a few logs in the morning and spread some manure. Father agreed with him, but also claimed a scientific rationale—no sort of exercise provides a workout as comprehensive as chopping wood, which involves every muscle group in the body. After poring over a good number of pamphlets, Anton declared that physical labor does not, in fact, involve every muscle, and any such labor should be followed by additional exercises. At that, Grandfather and Father burst out laughing: “I’d like to see those physiologists spend one morning digging a ditch or stacking hay! Just ask Vasily Illarionovich—he spent twenty years at mining sites, living next to workers’ barracks; everyone there sees everything. Just ask him if he ever once saw a miner come back from his shift and do exercises.” Vasily Illarionovich never saw any such thing.

“Grandfather, Pereplyotkin was a blacksmith. Fine. But you—how did you ever get to be so strong?”

“Well, you see… I come from a family of priests; we’ve been priests going back for generations, all the way to Peter the Great, if not further.”


“So—as your Darwin would say—artificial selection…

There had been an unwritten rule about accepting boys for seminary—the weak and stunted were rejected. The boys would all be brought in by their fathers, so their fathers were inspected, too. The men who would carry the Word of the Lord to the people were supposed to be handsome, tall, and strong. Such physical types were also more likely to possess bass or baritone voices, which also mattered. And so these were the sort who were chosen. That’s how it was done for a thousand years, since the days of Saint Vladimir.

True enough: Father Pavel, the archpriest of the cathedral in Gorky, and another of Grandfather’s brothers, a priest who served in Vilnius, and one other brother as well, a priest in Zvenigorod—all of them were tall, sturdy men. Father Pavel served ten years in the camps of Mordovia felling trees, and even now, at ninety, he was still hale and hearty. “Priestly stock!” Father Anton would say, sitting down for a smoke as Grandfather continued—slowly, steadily and somehow even silently—to split birch logs with his ax. Yes, Grandfather was stronger than Father, and Father was no weakling: sinewy, hardy, from a family of peasant smallholders (in which there still lived a trace of aristocratic blood and pluck), he’d been raised on rye bread from Tver, and was as good at haymaking and logging as anyone you could meet. At half Grandfather’s age (at that time, just after the war, Grandfather was past seventy) his brown hair was still dark and thick, with just a slight streak of gray. Aunt Tamara’s hair stayed black as a crow’s wing to the day she died at ninety.

Grandfather had never been sick in his life. But two years before, when his youngest daughter, Anton’s mother, moved away to Moscow, the toes of his right foot suddenly began turning black. Grandma and the older daughters tried to talk him into going to the polyclinic. But for the last few years the only one Grandfather would listen to was his youngest girl, and she was gone now. So he never saw a doctor—“No point going to doctors when you’re ninety-three!”—and stopped showing his foot to anyone, claiming the problem had cleared up on its own.

But nothing had cleared up. And when Grandfather was finally forced to show the family his foot, everyone gasped: the blackness had reached the middle of his shin. If it had been caught in time, he might have lost only his toes. Now there was no choice but to amputate at the knee.

Grandfather never learned to use crutches, and took to his bed. Once deprived of the rhythm of physical work in the vegetable garden and yard that he’d maintained for fifty years, he grew depressed, weakened, and irritable. He’d get angry when Grandma brought him breakfast in bed; he preferred to hobble to the table, supporting himself on chairs. Being forgetful, Grandma would sometimes bring him both his felt boots to put on, and if she did, Grandfather would shout at her. That was how Anton learned that his grandfather could actually raise his voice at someone. Grandma would anxiously kick the second boot under the bed, but then at lunch and dinner the whole thing would start over. For some reason it took the family a long time to think of getting rid of the second boot altogether.

During the last month Grandfather had weakened dramatically. He had the family write to all his children and grandchildren telling them to come to Chebachinsk to say goodbye—“and also to resolve certain inheritance issues.” Ira, his granddaughter, to whom he dictated the letters, said that he used this same phrase in every one of them.

“It’s just like in that novel Borrowed Time, by that famous Siberian writer…,” she said. Ira worked as a librarian at the district library and kept up with contemporary literature, but she had a hard time remembering the authors’ names. “There’s too many of them,” she would complain.

Anton had been surprised by the mention of “inheritance issues” in Grandfather’s letter to him. What inheritance? A bookcase with fifty books? A hundred-year-old love seat from Vilnius, the one Grandma called their causeuse? True, there was the house. But it was old and dilapidated. Who would even want it?

But Anton was wrong. Among the residents of Chebachinsk, Grandfather’s inheritance was being sought by three different claimants.



2. Claimants to the Inheritance

He didn’t recognize his aunt Tatyana Leonídovna in the old woman who met him on the platform. “The years had left an indelible imprint on her face,” Anton thought.

Of his grandfather’s five daughters, Tatyana was always considered the prettiest. She was the first of them to be married—to a railway engineer named Tatayev, an honest-minded and impulsive man. In the middle of the war he slugged the director of railway traffic. Aunt Tanya never told us why he did it; she would only say, “That man was a bastard.”

Tatayev was expelled from the reserves and sent to the front. He wound up on a searchlight team. One night he illuminated a friendly aircraft by mistake. Vigilant SMERSH agents arrested him on the spot. He spent the night in a dug-out for detainees, charged with premeditated subversive activities against the Red Army, and was shot the next morning. When he first heard this story as a fifth-grader, Anton could not understand where they came up with such an absurd charge—as if anyone would be stupid enough to try something like that while completely surrounded by Russian troops who would seize you in seconds! But two World War II veterans who heard the story with him found nothing strange about it at all. Of course, their own comments—“Finishing out their job sheet?”, “Trouble making quota?”—were even more puzzling, but Anton never asked questions, and even though no one warned him not to, he never repeated anything he’d heard in household conversations. That may have been why everyone spoke so freely around him. Or maybe they thought he was too young to understand. They had only the one room in any case.

Soon after Tatayev was executed, his wife and three children—Vovka, age six; Kolka, four and Katka, two and a half—were sent to a transit prison in the Kazakh city of Akmolinsk. After awaiting her sentence for four months, she was ordered to the Smorodinovka sovkhoz in Akmolinsk Province. The four of them made their way there by hitching rides in trucks, cars or on oxcarts and on foot, splashing through the April puddles in their felt boots, since they had no other shoes (they’d been arrested in winter).

In the village of Smorodinovka Aunt Tanya got a job as a dairymaid—and that was a stroke of luck, since she was able to smuggle home a hot-water bottle of milk for the kids strapped to her stomach every day. As a ChSIR (“family member of a traitor to the motherland”), she was not entitled to ration cards. They were given lodging in a calf shed, but they were promised a dugout. Its current tenant, an exile like Aunt Tanya, was expected to die any minute now. Every day the family sent Vovka to look in on her. The door had no lock; he would step inside and say, “Hey, lady, did you die yet?” “Not yet,” she would answer. “Come again tomorrow.” When she finally died, they were allowed to move in to the dugout on condition that Aunt Tanya bury the dead woman. So she and two neighbor women loaded the body onto a wheelbarrow and carted it off to the cemetery. The new tenant took up the handle shafts in both hands, one neighbor helped push along the barrow, which tended to get stuck in the rich black earth of the steppe, while the other neighbor tried to steady the body, which was wrapped in burlap. But the wheelbarrow was too small for its load and kept rolling over into the mud. The burlap was soon black and sticky. This bier was trailed by a slender funeral procession consisting of Vovka, Kolka and falling behind them, Katka.

But the family’s luck was short-lived. Aunt Tanya did not respond to the advances of the kolkhoz director and was evicted from the dugout and moved back into a calf shed. The new shed, which was for newborn calves, was admittedly more livable than the first one. It was spacious and warm; sometimes two or even three days would go by without a calving, and every seventh of November brought a special holiday treat: no calvings for five days in a row, which meant the family had the shed all to itself for that entire time. They lived in the calf shed for two years, until the new milkmaid, a Chechen girl, jabbed the amorous kolkhoz director with a three-tined pitchfork near a manure pile. Her victim, hoping to avoid a scandal, never went to the hospital, but manure had clung to the tines, and a week later he died of general sepsis. Penicillin was unavailable in those parts until the mid-1950s.

Throughout the war and the following ten years Aunt Tanya worked on the farm, without days off, without a single vacation. It was frightening to look at her hands, while she herself grew so thin she was almost transparent.

In the famine year of 1946, Grandma sent her oldest boy, Vovka, to live with us in Chebachinsk. He talked little, and never complained. One time when he’d cut his finger badly, he clambered under the table and sat there, gathering the dripping blood in the cup of his other hand, and when it was full, he carefully poured the blood into a crack in the floor. He was a sickly boy; he had to take “red streptocide,” which turned the color of his stream on the snow a bright crimson, much to my envy. He was two years my senior, but was only entering the first grade. I, on the other hand, had skipped first grade entirely and was already in third grade—and for that reason I was terribly condescending to Vovka. My grandfather had taught me to read so early that I couldn’t remember ever being illiterate. And so I made fun of my cousin, who still read by sounding out each syllable. But not for long: his reading improved very quickly, and by the end of that first year he could add and multiply in his head better than I could. “Just like his father,” Grandma would say with a sigh. “That man did all his figuring without a slide rule.”

There were no composition books; the teacher told us to buy Vovka a published book printed on the whitest paper we could find. Grandma bought The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)—Short Course. The store that sold kerosene, locally produced glass pitchers and glasses and locally produced wooden rakes and stools also had a whole shelf full of this book. The paper in it was the best available; Vovka drew his little hooks and “letter elements” right on top of the printed text. Before the contents disappeared forever beneath the blight of his violet ink marks, we read the book carefully and then quizzed each other:

“Who had an English uniform?”


“What kind of tobacco did he smoke?”


“Who ran for cover?”


Vovka titled the second part of his composition book Rithmatik and used it for his math problems. It began on chapter four, the famous philosophic chapter of the Short Course. But the teacher said he would have to keep a separate notebook for arithmetic; and so Father gave Vovka a pamphlet, Critique of the Gotha Program. That one was boring, though, except for the foreword by some academician, which began nicely, with poetry (only the lines weren’t printed in a column): A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.

Vovka spent only one year at our school. I wrote letters to him afterwards in Smorodinovka. There must have been something offensive and haughty in those letters, because Vovka soon sent me a reply in the form of an acrostic that spelled the message Antosha is a British braggart. The word British was formed from these lines:

But you just go right on bragging,
Right on giving yourself airs.
If you knew my interest's flagging,
Then you'd write of other cares!
I know you've been learning English,
So why don't you let it rest?
How 'bout acting not so boorish 

and so on.

I was stunned. Vovka, who had still been reading syllable by syllable only the year before, was now writing verses, and not just verses, but acrostics, something I’d never even heard of before then. Long afterwards, Vovka’s teacher told me that in thirty years of teaching she’d never met any student as capable as he was. In Smorodinovka Vovka completed seventh grade, then a vo-tech school for tractor and combine operators. When I came back to Chebachinsk, summoned by Grandfather’s letter, I found him still living in the same place, with his wife, who worked as a dairymaid, and their four daughters.

Aunt Tanya and the rest of the children moved to Chebachinsk; Father moved them out of Smorodinovka in a truck, taking a cow with them—a genuine Simmental that they wouldn’t dream of leaving behind. She mooed and banged her horns against the sides of the truck bed all the way to Chebachinsk. Then he wangled a place for the middle child, Kolka, in a cinema operators’ school, which was no mean feat: complications from mistreated childhood otitis had left him hard of hearing, but a former student of Father’s was on the admissions committee. Once he started work as a projectionist, Kolka proved incredibly enterprising. He would sell some sort of forged tickets that he got printed up for him clandestinely at the local print shop. For film showings in tuberculosis sanatoriums he used to make the patients pay him personally. He wound up a first-rate chiseler. All he ever cared about was money. He found himself a rich fiancée, the daughter of a shady merchant woman known locally as Manya Delyets. Kolka’s new bride complained to Aunt Tanya, “He gets under the covers and just turns toward the wall. I try pressing my breasts up against him, and everything else. I swing my leg over him, and then I turn over, too, and face the other wall. So we just lie there, butt cheek to butt cheek.” After the wedding he bought himself a motorcycle. His mother-in-law wouldn’t give him money for a car.

For the first year, Katka lived with us, but after that we had to turn her out: she stole from us from the very first days. We had no way of hiding money from her in any case, and she found it without fail—in the sewing kit, in books, under the radio. She would only take part of it, but it quickly added up. Before long Mama took to bringing both her own and Father’s salaries to school with her in her briefcase, where it lay untouched in the faculty room all day. Deprived of these funds, Katka began stealing silver teaspoons and stockings; one time she made off with a three-quart jar of sunflower oil for which Tamara, another of Grandfather’s daughters, had spent half a day standing in line. Mama got her a spot in nursing school—which was another miracle, since Katka was a terrible student. (Once again, having a former student in the right place did the trick.) Once she became a nurse, she proved to be just as slick an operator as her brother. She would perform various injections off the books, pilfer medicines from the hospital and issue false medical certificates. The two of them were greedy and also inveterate liars about matters great or trivial. Grandfather used to say, “They’re only half to blame. Honest poor folk are poor only to a certain degree. These two grew up in destitution, terrible destitution. You don’t find really dirt-poor people who are ethical.” Anton believed Grandfather, but he never liked Katka and Kolka. When Grandfather died, his younger brother in Lithuania, in Siauliai, where their father once owned an estate, mailed the family a large amount of cash to cover the funeral. The mail lady delivered the envelope to Kolka, who said nothing about it to anyone. When the next letter came from Father Vladimir, the secret was out, but Kolka claimed that he’d laid the money on the windowsill. Aunt Tanya was living with him now, in a public-housing apartment attached to the movie theater. Kolka undoubtedly had designs on the house.

The oldest daughter, Tamara, a kind and defenseless creature who had lived her whole life with old people and never married, was not even aware that she might have a claim to any sort of inheritance. She’d spent the years stoking the stove, cooking, laundering, washing the floor, and leading our cow to the herd. In the evenings the herdsman would bring the cows back only as far as the village gate, where the women would sort them out, and then the smarter cows would go the rest of the way home on their own. Our cow, Zorka, was smart, but once in a while something used to come over her and she would dash across the river and head for Kamenukha or further still, into the ravines. We would have to find her before it got dark. Sometimes Uncle Lyonya would go hunt for her, or Grandfather would, or even Mama. I tried myself three different times. None of us ever found her. Tamara always did. Her knack for finding that cow seemed supernatural to me. Father explained it this way: “Tamara knows that she has to find the cow. So she does.” I never really understood that. Tamara would work day in, day out, but on Sundays Grandma would let her go to church, and sometimes late in the evening she would get out a notebook into which she would copy out various texts in her clumsy handwriting. It would be children’s stories by Tolstoy, or paragraphs from a schoolbook that happened to be lying on the table, or something from her prayerbook—usually it was one evening devotion in particular: And suffer me, O Lord! to abide this night in peaceful slumber… The kids would call her Shosha to tease her. I have no idea how they came up with that. It would hurt her feelings. I didn’t tease her myself. I supplied her with notebooks, then I used to bring her blouses from Moscow. But after Kolka got her evicted from her apartment and packed her off to an old folks’ home in far-off Pavlodar, I would only send her an occasional package. I kept meaning to visit her—Pavlodar is only a three-hour flight from Moscow—, but I never did. Today there isn’t a single trace of her left: neither her notebooks, nor her icons. Only a single photograph: turning toward the camera, she’s wringing out some linen. For fifteen years she never saw a single relative, not one of us, the ones she loved the most, to whom she would always begin her letters “All my dearest ones!”

The third claimant was Uncle Lyonya, the youngest of Grandfather’s children. Anton got to know him only after his other uncles and aunts: in 1938 he was called up for army service, and then the Soviet-Finnish War began (he ended up at the front in that war because he alone of a whole battalion of Siberians admitted to being a good skier). Then came World War II, then the war with Japan. Then he was redeployed from the Far East to the extreme western end of the country to fight the army of Stepan Bandera. He returned from this last military expedition with two Ukrainian slogans to share with us: Khai zhive pan Bandera ta ego zhinka Paraska! (Long live Pan Bandera and his wife Paraska!) and Khai zhive dvadtsat’ vos’ma rokovina zhovtnevoi revoliutsii! (Long live the Twenty-Eighth Anniversary of the October Revolution!). It was 1947 before he finally returned. People said that Lyonya was lucky. He’d been a combat wireman, but had never even been wounded, apart from two concussions. Aunt Larissa thought those concussions had cost him some of his intellectual faculties. She was thinking of the way he used to play at sea battles and card games with his very young nieces and nephews in great earnest, getting genuinely upset if he lost, which is why he often cheated, hiding cards in the tops of his tarpaulin boots.

Near the end of the war, Uncle Lyonya met a Polish girl named Zosya near Belaya Tserkov and took to sending her packages from Germany. Aunt Larissa would ask him why he never sent anything to the old folks at home, or as long as he was sending everything he had to his precious Zosya, what kept him from going to visit her. He avoided answering, but when she pressed him on it, he said, “She wrote me. Said not to come.”

“And she didn’t say why?”

“She did. She said ‘why bother?’”

He was a Party member when he came back from the war, but the family only learned about this when one of his coworkers at the railroad told Grandma that Leonid Leonidovich had recently been expelled from the Party for never paying his membership dues. His chest had been covered in war medals, including three “For Bravery.” Of the many others, the one Anton liked best was the medal “For the Taking of Kö-nigs-berg.” For some reason, the few war stories he told were all about the Soviet-Finnish War. Like the one about some infantry units that reached the front wearing rubber boots—even though the temperature was under minus 30 degrees Celsius. Anton read in Pioneer magazine that the greatest danger our side faced was the “cuckoos,” Finnish snipers.

Cuckoos! What bunk! What fool’s gonna… climb a tree… when it’s that cold? What for?”

Uncle Lyonya never said a word about his second war, and when we tried to get him to tell us about it, all he would say was “What’s to tell? I laid field wire.” And he showed no feelings about it at all. Anton saw him get emotional only once. Uncle Lyonya’s older brother, Nikolai Leonidovich, who was at the Elba river at the end of the war, came from Saratov for the old folks’ golden wedding anniversary, and said that the American soldiers he’d met were using wireless radio sets instead of laying field wire from spools. Uncle Lyonya, who usually kept his eyes on the ground, looked up at that and seemed about to say something. Then he lowered his head again, his eyes filling with tears. Aunt Larissa was startled and asked, “What’s the matter, Lyonya?”

“I feel sorry for our boys,” Uncle Lyonya said, then got up and left.

At the front he kept a notebook in which he copied out songs. But after the song about the little blue handkerchief he’d written down the “Prayer of Metropolitan Sergy, Lockham Tennis”: Succor us, O Lord, our Savior. Rise to our aid and grant victory to our warriors in Thy name. But if it be Thy will that they lay down their souls on the field of battle, forgive them their sins, and in the day of Thy just retribution, bestow on them crowns of incorruption.

All of that was very fine: bestow, crowns of incorruption… The only puzzling part was Lockham Tennis. When Anton asked his grandfather what tennis had to do with any of this, Grandfather laughed till tears came, then called over a bearded old former deacon to share the joke (Grandma had just served him flour mush in the kitchen). Eventually, though, Grandfather explained what locum tenens meant, and added that Sergy was no longer the Patriarch Locum Tenens, but rather the Patriarch himself. After that he and the bearded old man had a long debate about whether the Patriarchate should have been restored.

Uncle Lyonya had reached Berlin. “Did you leave your name on the Reichstag?”

“The boys did.”

“But what about you?”

“The bottoms of the walls… They were already covered. So they tell me, ‘You’re strong enough.’ Then this one guy… He climbs up on my shoulders. Another guy climbs on top of him. The top guy signed his name.”

Before long he got married. His bride was a widow, with two children. But Grandma was actually pleased about that: “What are they supposed to do now, the poor things?” What she objected to was something else: Uncle Lyonya’s new wife smoked and drank. In all the years he’d been in the army, he himself had never taken up smoking and never touched alcohol. (At his job he was taken for a Baptist: he not only never drank, he never swore, either.) “That’s understandable,” Aunt Larissa would say. “He fought in wars for ten years straight. How much can a body take?” After a few years, his wife left to do a stint of higher-paying work up North, leaving him with the kids—for good, as it turned out. He remarried; his second wife was also a smoker, and a downright alcoholic. Once when she was drunk she got terribly frostbitten and died. She, too, left Uncle Lyonya a child. He married once again, but his third wife also drank. Not that that stopped her from having another baby every year.

Because of all these matrimonial problems, my uncle was always living in some hovel or another. For a while he and his whole brood were actually living in a dugout that he himself had carved out of the earth in textbook style (embellishing this story somewhat, Anton told his friend Vaska Gagin that his uncle had used his old combat shovel) and then roofed over with discarded cross ties he’d picked up at his railroad job. He carried those ties on his shoulders all the way from the railroad sites where they’d been replaced on foot, a distance of over three miles. (“All these logs to build this hut of mine / By himself he hauled them, all of pine.”) He was strong, just like Grandfather. “You could have asked them to lend you a truck,” Grandma complained. “Gurka brought home a load of firewood from that same railroad site in a government truck.”

“I asked. They wouldn’t let me,” said Uncle Lyonya in his halting manner. “Ties aren’t heavy. Cannons, you know… When we hauled ’em out of the mud… Lots heavier.”

Uncle Kolya, who had served as an artillery captain in the war, happened to be visiting us at the time; after looking over the dugout, he asked Uncle Lyonya why he’d built the walls and roof in two layers.

“Expecting an artillery attack?”

“That’s how many ties they gave me. They said I had to take all of ’em.”

Of all the claimants, he was undoubtedly the one who needed Grandfather’s house the most.


Notes to Chapter 1

…that vagabond writer of yours: Maksim Gorky (pseudonym of Aleksei Maksímovich Péshkov, 1868–1936), famed for his proletarian roots and themes, his self-education and veneration of literacy, his close and complicated relations with the Soviet government. Gorky was the kingmaker and Great Old Man of early Soviet literature.

…like in that novel Borrowed Time, by a famous Siberian writer: A 1970 novel about a dying elderly peasant woman, Poslednii srok, by Valentin Rasputin (b. 1937), translated into English by Kevin Windle and Margaret Wettlin as Borrowed Time in Money for Maria and Borrowed Time (London: Quartet, 1981).


Notes to Chapter 2

Vigilant SMERSH agents: SMERSH (from the Russian “smert’ shpionam,” “death to spies”) was the counter-intelligence service of the USSR Commissariat of Defense from 1943 through 1946; its responsibilities included policing the Red Army for acts of disloyalty.

…a shady merchant woman known locally as Manya Delyets: the Russian word delyéts means “operator, hustler, wheeler-dealer.”

“All these logs to build this hut of mine / By himself he hauled them, all of pine.”: lines from Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem “Orina, Mother of a Soldier” (“Orina, mat’ soldatskaia,” 1863).




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