My youth in the USSR is all about silence, the suppression of opinions.
Life has a more pronounced performative aspect, with things you say vs. things you know and think. You criticize the government only in private settings. Elsewhere, you praise it. This performance is understood as the government’s untruth, not one’s own. It’s produced in jest in order to comply with the regime.
I’ve always assumed that outside official institutions such as work or school, communication is sincere. Russians are passionate about their beliefs and don't hesitate to express them. I’m the same way. Opinionated people are just fine by me as long as they acknowledge the legitimacy of other opinions.
It’s 1976. I’m eight, and the drawing class at school is my least favorite; a stray cat has more skill than I. The classroom is tall ceilings, bright second floor windows, shabby wooden desks, chairs that have held many tons of Soviet children. I crack up at the sight of the monstrosities that appear on paper when I draw an apple, a bird. Another kid in class seems to treat drawing with similar humor. Next time, I sit next to him. His name is Vadim.
Soon, we produce silly shapes on purpose: mutant birds with squashed heads advancing ironic ornithology, apples a reasonable worm would avoid. As we share these artifacts of visual depravity, we can't constrain laughter. The teacher does what teachers do – she separates us.
When thinking and feeling become more important in our teenage years, Vadim and I get even closer. Few of my classmates seem as intelligent or as interested in books. The white ping-pong ball tracks a jagged trajectory over the table as we spend hours arguing about people and books, our own habits and motivations.
“Do you think Pechorin is a positive character?” one of us may ask, referring to Mikhail Lermontov’s protagonist in A Hero of Our Time, the world’s first psychological novel.
“Mostly good. He’s sincere; he does what he believes in.”
“But he hurts people who don't deserve it.”
Vadim introduces the rule: to read first, postponing the homework – this way, parents can't force you to go to bed. We spend hours together, then hours on the phone. We both stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. despite the early morning horror of school looming over us.
Twice a week, we take the subway to our math group at the Palace of Young Pioneers, formerly Anichkov Palace. The subway flies under the great city of Leningrad. The Palace is an elegant baroque building started by a Russian architect and finished by the famous Francesco Rastrelli. It’s a vast, imposing structure with alternating four-story and two-story sections. It’s like the Soviet system itself, with its massive weight and its refined, purely decorative details.
In later years, Vadim and I are burned out on math and often opt for the high-quality Stiga ping-pong table inside the Palace. Vadim is brilliant and fascinating – the funniest person I know. He’s confident and good-looking – but unsettled in himself, which shows up in his irritability, his tendency to debate the minute degrees of responsibilities we must share, such as who should carry the bag with the ping pong net.
“Levin is a fake character,” I reference Anna Karenina. “It’s impossible to imagine a real person doing and saying those things.”
“Nonsense!” Vadim smirks contemptuously.
“It’s not nonsense. He’s an ideological character, employed specifically to…”
“By the way, you said the same about Pierre in War and Peace,” Vadim interrupts. “You said he was fake – but he’s the central character, supposedly based on Tolstoy himself.”
“You interrupted again. Besides, Tolstoy was a fairly fake person.”
Vadim argues about Tolstoy, letting go of the Pierre sub-thread. His disrespectful debate can be infuriating. We are trained early in life to vacate a seat for the elders, to say thank you, to avoid interrupting. Why is Vadim exempt? I’m surprised he doesn't exert the effort to train himself out of his negative habits. I often appeal to him to change his ways, and he doesn't deny my points – but his own thoughts seem to occupy him so completely that often, he is simply unable to focus on what others have to say.
There are few brilliant people in my vicinity – I put up with his faux pas.
In April 1986, I’m at the end of my first year at Leningrad State. This spring has a sinister flavor in my life. I’m eighteen, and college students are denied military draft deferment, something to do with the war in Afghanistan verging on perpetuity, as any war in that region tends to do. Stories of coffins transported back to Russia are beginning to circulate; we can only imagine the victim counts on the Afghani side. The USSR exports its tanks and its skill at mass murder.
Because Vadim’s birthday is in July, he is not eighteen yet by the time I’m drafted. We assume he will face the same fate shortly – in early August, he writes to confirm this.
A few months later, I’m in the Soviet Military in Siberia, being dehumanized. I’m in a military hospital, Vadim writes. I’ll tell you more later, you understand. I’m fine. Hope you are too.
Sensitive matters cannot be discussed via mail due to military censorship. I’m surviving basecamp and have lost thirty pounds in three months over bouts with dysentery and slave labor, such as digging deep trenches for gas pipes. Hunger and humiliation narrow my vision, cloud my mind. I think about food incessantly. I debate how to act so the sergeant stops singling me out as a Leningrad college boy.
My advanced state of personality reduction subdues my worries about Vadim, about anything.
In June 1988, I’m back in Leningrad. Vadim and I chat over tea in his small kitchen on the 21st floor of a twenty-two-story building uniquely well-designed by Soviet standards, with its four sections subdivided by massive columns of windows in a spine pattern. Outside, Victory Park sways its trees under the gray sky. We are twenty years old.
“What happened back then, with your discharge?” I ask.
“They’d shipped me north, near Murmansk. Army units in support of the Arctic Military Fleet. It was rough even in summer. No way I was going to stay for the winter. They say everything is frozen October through May. I wasn't about to do two years of that.”
“What did you do?”
“I slit my wrists.” He imitates the gesture with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Boris had explained it to me; he did this first. If you really wanted to kill yourself, you’d cut along the vein. Cutting across is much less risky. I picked a spot where they’d find me soon.”
What? I’m shocked, my body tight and tingly. I wouldn't have the nerve.
“Weren’t you afraid they might not find you in time?”
I imagine a dusty hall, a body on the ground. Someone is supposed to walk in. Will they? How will they react?
“That wasn't enough to stop me. I had to get out of there.”
He talks about it as a practical matter, his manner soft, nothing to indicate any suffering attached to this story. I have no reference point in suicide attempts. I see that Vadim is in his right mind and pragmatic about this. Here in the oppressive reality of the USSR, we all get away with everything we can – Vadim’s way sounds reasonable.
“What about the psych unit?”
“They commit you for a month or so.” He shrugs. “They want to evaluate whether you pose an ongoing risk to yourself or others. I had to make sure I played it right.”
“I kept saying I’d do it again if they sent me back.” Vadim grins. “I made up this story that I was depressed anyway, my life wasn't valuable to me, especially not under extreme duress.”
A story? I thought I had it tough back in Siberia, but it had never occurred to me to stage a suicide. I’d heard the gist of Vadim’s story from my mom, but I’d never considered it a template for what I might do. Even if I knew that the probability of being saved is 99%, I wouldn't risk it. Am I a coward? Do I genuinely value my life more than Vadim does?
What’s the value of a life at our age? It’s all about plans and hopes. I see a future full of words, interactions, individuals, books to red, books to write. What does he see? How is it that life is something he can already risk so easily?
“Impressive!” I say, instead of sharing any of these deeper rumblings. “What happened next?”
“It worked. My psychiatrist would’ve been in deep shit if he cleared me for service and I ended up killing myself or someone else.”
Makes sense. In the USSR, fear of repercussion is the primary motivating factor. I’m happy for Vadim’s escape. I would have loved to be reckless enough to set a timer for my own expiration, hoping the routines of others would save me.
The flip side: I’ve passed two years of dehumanization, while all he has invested is three months. I’m not too surprised when he comments, amid some minor disagreement, “You’ve gotten a bit stupid after all this time in Siberia. You’ll get over it.”
It hurts to hear. I take a second to consider. Am I stupid? In this quickly collapsing country, I may be out of step with the most current trends of thought among twenty-year-old urbanites. But even during my service, I found opportunities to keep reading and writing short stories and poetry. I found a phenomenal used book store in Chita and brought back impossible finds, including a three-volume Franz Kafka collection. In the 21st century, my partner Laurie and I will keep it on our trilingual Kafka shelf.
I refuse to accept Vadim’s conclusion. We simply have a difference of opinion in a small argument. Why can’t he recognize the legitimacy of different opinions?
The year and nine months of stewing in the relative freedom of the dying USSR have brought Vadim to a decision to emigrate. I’m incredulous. This option had never occurred to me. We were born here; things are getting better. Everyone tries to dissuade Vadim, but his mind is made.
“It’s all broken here. I have no more interest for this place.”
In December 1988, a group of friends gather in Vadim’s apartment. It’s a farewell party. The small flat is filled with young people. In three days, Vadim will fly out on his emigration path to the United States. Our conversation is full of jokes and optimism. A departure like this is less tragic to others, who see the promise. But I’m about to lose my best friend.
“Let’s drink to this particular kind of gathering.” Our classmate Anton raises his glass. “It’s like a wake to everyone except Vadim. Isn't it something, to drink at your own wake?”
In 1988, international flights are relegated to Pulkovo’s smaller terminal. Friends and family are not allowed in. We hover outside, freezing, desperate to track our loved ones through the frosted windows and the occasionally opened double door. Now and then, a bus of foreign tourists pulls up, and the policeman guarding the door pleads,
“Comrades, please move. Aren't you ashamed to let our foreign guests see you crowding out here like bums?”
“Aren’t you ashamed to do this to your own citizens?” someone from the small crowd yells. “Let us in!”
Because of the twenty-kilogram limit on the luggage, Vadim impersonates a polar dweller with his three layers of pants, sweaters, jackets. The weight of emigration has turned into fat on his body. On this clear December day, the umbrella in his hand completes a picture of displacement.
Something changes in the policemen’s attitude. Suddenly, we are allowed inside. Vadim passes through customs as we watch. There he is, so tangible across a few layers of glass and air. He glances at the gigantic clock on the wall: time, always pressing. He waves, walks through the door leading to the gates. Disappears.
In spring of 1990, almost overnight, my disappointment with the USSR comes to a head; I also decide to emigrate. Nothing will work right here, not in the next few years, nor in the next few decades. It’s all broken here, as Vadim pointed out.
On December 20, 1990, I land at another airport: JFK. Vadim picks me up. My head is full of efficient designs and comfortable accommodations I’ve observed during my Leningrad – New York flight, with stops in Ireland and Greenland. It’s a beautiful day.
Vadim is elegant, confident in a fitted pair of jeans, an intriguing leather jacket, a cool pair of boots. In this outfit, in this gateway to the free world, he is downright stunning. A good deal taller than I, with his curly hair in no need of care, his long legs and his smart brown eyes, he makes me wish I were attracted to men. We could have a dysfunctional affair.
I spend three days in New York City with Vadim and Boris, who emigrated a year ago. What a reunion. Three years ago, as I counted my remaining days in Siberia, this version of my future would have seemed absurd.
It’s February 1991; I’m twenty-two. I’ve settled in Albany, close enough to visit New York City every month or so.
I take the subway to Vadim’s new place in Jackson Heights.
“How’s the new life?” he asks.
“Still trying to find a steady job.”
“But you like it here?”
“I love it.” I can't suppress a big smile. “And I love the City. New York was supposed to be this extremely unfriendly place, but everyone seems cordial. Much friendlier than back in the USSR.”
The apartment is functional, nondescript. We discuss circumstances, share plans, many of them naïve as one would expect from our age and our status as new immigrants. Especially mine, just a baby. We talk until 3 a.m., entertained by an army of cockroaches. We get melancholy and philosophical.
“I’m skeptical about myself.” Vadim bites into his open-faced white fish sandwich. “Myself and everything else. The thing is, I can't fly, and I have no reason to believe others can. I get tired of everything too soon, even things that engage me at first.”
We speak Russian, as we always do. He says it just like this, ya ne oomayoo letat’, I can't fly. I know what he means without quite knowing how it feels. He is not moved by inspiration, not driven by lofty ideas. He lacks a calling in life.
“No one can fly from the start,” I say. “It takes time to learn.”
“I don't have the patience. I always think: it would be nice to have written a novel, made a film. But I’m not up to the actual work of it. I don't have any concrete ideas. When I sit down to write, nothing comes.”
In the morning, Vadim leaves for work, abandoning me to the cockroaches. I have an appointment at the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Manhattan. Outside, snow is dense, insistent like the white space of our lives, emptiness perpetually yearning to swallow the meanings we so desperately build.
I witness a multiethnic procession, faces floating in white, suspended from their umbrellas: Black, Latinx, Asian, Caucasian, all combinations thereof, beautiful and engaged – the real people of the real world, not the identical pale shadows that surrounded me back in the make-believe USSR. I open my own umbrella, become one of the floating faces.
I stop by the office where Vadim is employed as an administrative assistant. It’s after four. Vadim is typing; I settle down in the lobby to write a letter to my partner Luba, who is still in Russia. In a few days, my letter is set to travel there with a friend of Vadim’s. Mail is known to be inspected and often lost or stolen upon its arrival in Russia – personal delivery is not only much faster, but also safer.
Luba is yet to get a US visa and an airplane ticket for herself and her daughter Sonya. I haven't seen her in three months. I miss you, I write. I hesitate. What more substantial thoughts are there to share? My mind is overloaded with new contexts eluding brief description.
At five, a trickle of employees flee, most with a curious glance my way. Vadim and I stay behind. I pick up some food at a nearby McDonald’s while he starts the coffee machine.
“I don't know if I’ll stick at this job.” He bites into a burger as we face each other across a coffee table.
“Why not? It seems nice.”
“Nice? I’m not sure I can take this for more than a couple of months. Typing stupid documents, talking to stupid people. I already had a small argument the other day.”
Any number of steps separate me from an office job. I’m envious of Vadim’s nonchalance, but in a good way. I know I won't be stuck in low-paying positions in food industry for the rest of my life.
“Wouldn't another job be similar?”
“True. I’m not good at keeping them.”
To me, a paying job is a permission to exist and to be a writer. What is it to him? At twenty-two, shouldn't we all have a plan, a path?
In a couple of hours, I’m taking a bus back to Albany.
“Do you mind if I take half an hour to finish my letter to Luba?”
“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?” Vadim is unexpectedly aggravated, his face tense, unpleasant.
What just happened?
“Can't you read a book or something?” I keep my voice level.
“You’re wasting my time. You’d never do the same for me, or anyone else for that matter.”
“That’s crazy. Of course I would.” I don't even know how to confirm my point, can't decide if his accusations are more offensive or incongruous. Should I laugh or feel hurt? I experience something in between.
I’m with Vadim in New York, and he is being rather unpleasant, I write. Otherwise, my life is fine. I have work these few weeks, but after that, I don't know yet. I’m working for this electrician, an old Hungarian. He is hilarious and swears continuously in the most elaborate ways. I’ll introduce you. How are you and Sonya?
The pressure is on, extinguishing all inspiration. I wrap up my epistolary efforts. We turn off the lights and step outside. The snow has not subsided.
“Should we take a walk?” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
“Nah. Too cold.”
I open my umbrella; it doesn't take long for snow to accumulate on its surface, on Vadim’s hair. I’m sad, compelled to say something, to find a fix for his gloom. I feel a mix of disdain and love for him. Why is he so irritable, so unfriendly?
“You need to find something real,” I venture as we cross Sixth Avenue. “Something important to you.”