Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Red Ticket: Searching for Dmitri Orlov

From 2008

In 1991, I was a junior at the University of Florida, majoring in Russian and religion. That summer, I spent 6 weeks in Moscow with 20 of my fellow students. They had flown over as a group, but I was very fortunate to have been able to spend several weeks in Europe before going to Russia. So, instead of flying as part of my school group, I took a train from London to Moscow when it was time for the program to start.

This meant that at the end of our stay, I had to take a train back to London, to catch my flight home. I was dreading the 3-day train ride. I had never taken a train anywhere before this trip, much less to a Communist country, and had no idea what to expect. No one told me to bring my own food, for example, and if it hadn't been for the two Kazakh women I shared a compartment with, I would have gone hungry. At least this time I had packed food for the return journey back to London.

I waved to my classmates as their bus to the airport pulled away, and stuck out my arm. Almost immediately, a young man in a cream-colored Lada pulled over. He wasn't a taxi driver, but a regular Muscovite who wanted to make a few extra rubles by giving a stranger a ride. I asked him to take me to the train station, threw my backpack in the car, and off we went.

When we got to the station, the driver surprised me by offering to go in with me and “get my ticket sorted out.” This was above and beyond the 5-ruble service, I knew, but I also looked around at the hoards of people milling in and out of the station, many of them carrying duffle bags full of live chickens, and agreed. When we went inside, him carrying my bag, I was glad I had. The place was chaos. There were multiple ticket windows, all with inscrutable signs and surly staff, and every window had a huge clutch of people standing, mob-like, in front of it. My driver took a brief look around, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me to the front of one of these crowds.

I stood beside him while he and the ticket taker grouchily yelled at each other for what seemed like a long, long time. I could make out some, but not all, of what was being said. Finally, my driver turned to me and in English that was far better than my Russian, cheerfully said, “Well! There is small problem with ticket.”

“Problem? What problem?” I asked. Oh no. Perhaps there were no more compartments on the train and I would have to ride “platzcart,” sleeping on a bunkbed in a dusty boxcar with 50 other strangers. Perhaps instead of going to London the train had been diverted to some other city, and I’d have to find another way to get to the capital.

“Ehh,” said my driver, “Your train, it will be little bit late.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, “How late?”

“September 25th,” said my driver.

“September 25th?” I did some fast, panicked math. “But. But. Today is August 16th. September 25th is over a month away.”

“Yes,” said my driver, unfazed. “You will come back then.” He handed me my bag and began to walk away.

“Wait!” I yelled at his back, “Wait!”

A month away? I literally knew no one in this city now that my school group had departed. Worse, I had no money at all save for a couple of useless traveler’s checks, and no place to stay. I pictured myself hauling my 70-lb backpack around the streets of Moscow for a month. Could I do it? No, of course not. Maybe in America I could lurk around in cafes during the day, or visit all-night diners, but in communist Moscow there was no place to go. Lingering and loitering, not to mention homelessness, were seriously frowned upon.

And then there was the matter of getting home to Florida. My plane from London was leaving in four days. I couldn't just stay here. I was supposed to go back to school the next week.

Now, normally what privileged college kids would do in this situation would be to get on the phone and call mom. Ask her to wire some money, or call somebody. But there was no way that I knew of to call overseas from Russia, certainly not from a pay phone. During our 6-week stay in the country we had been shepherded into the director of Moscow State’s foreign exchange program’s office exactly once and had been given the opportunity to call home to let our parents know that we were still alive. After 20 minutes of beeping and whirring and crackly static, I’d been connected to my mother’s secretary at her office in the local school board. “I’m sorry, but Gail’s in a meeting right now,” the secretary had responded.

“I’m calling from communist Russia!” I had hollered, “Please go and get her!”

Calling mom was out of the question, I decided. Besides, what would she do? This was clearly out of the realm of what even a mom could fix. Crap, I thought, does this mean I’m an adult? If that’s what it means, I’m in trouble. I’m obviously not ready.

My driver turned around. “What is it?” he asked.

I told him about my predicament, about how I had no place to go, knew no one, and had no money. His broad face became sly. “Well, you must come home with me,” he declared.

I realized that he was right. I must come home with him. There was no other option. This was before the fall of communism, before the days of the Russian sex trade, before the days of women disappearing and their credit cards turning up 2 years later in Turkmenistan. Before the days of me knowing anything about anything. “OK,” I said, unhappily. “OK. I will.”

I walked dejectedly out to his car and put my bag back in the backseat. He seemed cheerful. “My name is Dmitri Orlov,” he told me as we drove through the city, “And I am famous actor. You are 20, you say? That is well, I am 21! I will take you to my home, but first, I must make stop for gas.”

“Oh great,” I thought as he drove, “a famous actor.” Yes, right. We ALL know Americans are obsessed with famous actors. Hollywood’s in America, after all. You, Dmitri Orlov, in your crappy Lada with your scruffy face and your dorky white sweatshirt and acid-washed jeans. I am just so SURE that you are a famous actor. But you are also the only thing standing between me and starving on the street for a month so ok, wow, gosh, a famous actor. Neat.

Dmitri pulled the car off the main road and onto a dirt path, like the kind my grandfather walked cows down back home in Florida. A rutted road with 2 small hollows where car wheels had worn away the grass. The sparse buildings disappeared behind us. “Uh, what are we doing?” I asked him in Russian.

Here we go, I thought, already. This is it. We pulled up behind a dirty blue Olga, and Dmitri cut the engine. He sat in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead.

“This is line for gas,” he said in English, looking over at me and shrugging and giving a “what can you do?” kind of look. “I’m sorry it is so long.” I decided that maybe he wasn’t an actor, but maybe he wasn’t a homicidal rapist, either. Maybe he was just a nice guy who was trying to help and who needed gas.

“Oh. Man…” I said, opening the door and getting out of the car.

“What are you doing?” Dmitri exclaimed as I climbed up on the hood.

“I’m seeing how long the line is,” I replied. The line of cars stretched for at least a mile, probably more; way off in the distance I could see some kind of edifice that looked like a toll booth, with people milling around. It was going to be a long, long wait. I got back in the car, reached in my pocket. “Can I smoke a cigarette?”

“No! Absolutely not!” Dmitri looked at me in horror. “Smoking is impossible! We will explode.”

I laughed. “Did you know that in Russian ‘not allowed’ and ‘impossible’ are the same word? It’s not just that something you’re not supposed to do is prohibited, here. No, here, if it’s not allowed it’s also actually physically not possible. In America, we make a distinction between those two concepts. Here, you don’t. Isn’t that interesting?” Dmitri looked like he was sorry he’d picked me up. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” I asked him, leaning forward and raising my voice just a little.

“Da, da, I understand,” replied Dmitri. “My English is very good because I have been in many films.”

Finally, more than three hours after we’d pulled up behind the Olga, we’d putted into one of the bays inside the station and purchased our gas. I had long since exhausted the questions I had for Dmitri about the gas station (How’d you know the gas station was here, anyway? It’s hidden down this dirt road, and there are no signs! Is this the only gas station in the whole city? Why are there so many people here? Why is this taking so long? Is gas rationed? Are there only certain days that you’re allowed to get gas? What if you had something else you had to do? Are you just supposed to sit here all day? This is a really bad system! Look, there are 5 bays to pull cars into! Why don’t they form 5 short lines instead of 1 long one? That would make things go so much more quickly!) Now I just stared out the window in grumpy silence while Dmitri, sanguine in the driver’s seat, hummed Queen songs and beat out a rhythm on the steering wheel.

By the time we climbed the steps to Dmitri’s apartment on Moscow’s Ring Road, it was dark outside. I’d set out for the train station at 10:00 that morning, I remembered; the whole day had been wasted arguing with the ticket lady and waiting in line for gas. I was starving, and exhausted. I didn’t much care what awaited me at Dmitri’s house. As long as I didn’t have to wait in a line, I’d be fine.

Dmitri opened the door to his flat and we stepped into a large foyer with a shiny parquet floor. The foyer led into a brightly lit hallway that went off to the left and the right. Directly in front of us, framed by a pair of open French doors, was a large living room stuffed with antique furniture. Two of these antiques looked up expectantly as we entered, a man and a woman of about 65. “Hey,” said Dmitri in Russian, “This is Robin. She’s an American girl. She’s going to stay with us for a few days.” The old couple nodded at me and Dmitri shepherded me down the hallway to the right, into his room.

I sat down on his narrow bed. “Dmitri,” I whispered in English, “Your roommates are certainly old. Where’d you meet them?”

“They are my parents,” said Dmitri, sitting down beside me and grabbing me in a tight embrace. “Mmmm, mmmm,” he said, giving me a big sloppy kiss on the mouth.

I tried to kiss him back, but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t unattractive, exactly, but his face was so stubbly, and his kiss was so wet and drooly. I felt bad. I pulled away from Dmitri and tried to look chaste. “Oh, Dmitri,” I told him, “I’m so sorry. Much as I would like to, I cannot kiss you. I have a boyfriend waiting for me back home.”

“Ehhh, is OK,” said Dmitri, shrugging. We sat for a few seconds in awkward silence. I looked around the room, which looked like the room of any 21-year-old boy anywhere. Piles of clothes, tennis shoes, record albums. Snapshots of Paula Abdul and Arnold Schwarzenegger taped to the wall next to the bed. OK, but wait. I squinted at the pictures, which I noticed were not cut from magazines but were actual snapshots, taken from an actual camera. And more than that, I noticed that the person in them giving Paula a big drooly kiss and Arnold a manly hug was none other than Dmitri, my Russian rescuer.

“Hey,” I said, tapping Mitya on the shoulder, “What are you doing in these pictures with Paula Abdul and Arnold Schwarzenegger?”

“I told you,” said Dmitri, looking bored, “I am famous actor. I come from family of famous actors. Is what we do. I was in, maybe you know this film, ‘Terminator 2’? I am second man who gets blown up in opening scene.”

“Wow,” I intoned, peering at the photos, “The second man who gets blown up…” I had indeed seen Terminator 2, though I didn’t remember this particular scene. “Mitya, that is really cool.”

“Yes,” agreed Mitya, “Is cool.”

I stayed with Mitya (a diminutive of Dmitri) and his family that Friday, and all through the weekend. I slept on the couch in the overstuffed living room while Nick, the family’s much-loved collie, slept on the floor next to me. These Russians were extremely kind to me, an anxious American who took up all the space in their living room, smoked incessantly, and asked way too many questions. Each morning when I’d wake up, I’d go sit in the sunny kitchen with Dmitri’s mother, talking with her in my halting Russian while she cooked me homemade bliny. My Russian was so bad at this point that it was difficult for her to understand me. We’d come to a certain point in the conversation and my brain would just freeze, exhausted from trying to communicate. “Ny ladno,” I’d always say at these junctures, “Oh well.”

Mitya’s mother would laugh. “Your Russian is terrible!” she’d tease, “But when you say ‘oh well’ you sound exactly like one of us. No accent at all.” Yes, I thought bitterly, perhaps resigned acceptance of one’s fate sounds the same in any language.

On Sunday morning, his mother sat down next to me and looked at me seriously. “Eh, Robin,” she began, “Will your family be coming over?”

“For what?” I asked her, confused.

At Dmitri's cousin's dacha ("push the camera button, hard")
“For the wedding!” she said brightly. Oh dear. I didn’t know what Mitya’d been telling her to make my presence in their home acceptable, but clearly it was time to have a serious talk with him. When we arrived home from his cousin’s dacha that evening (where he’d lent me his denim jacket with the Elvis Presley pin, his prized possession), I sat him down on my couch bed. I’d tried all weekend to get him to take me to the Aeroflot offices so I could see about a cheap one-way ticket to London, but every time I’d mentioned it he’d put me off.

“We’ll go after we visit the Novodevichy Monastery!” he’d say. “Turgenyev is buried there!”

Finally, I got my point across. “Dmitri,” I said, “Your mother thinks we are going to get married. You know that is not true. I have a boyfriend at home, and a family. They are going to be worried about me if I’m not on that plane on Tuesday. I miss my family.” I realized that was true, and started to cry.

“Tomorrow, Monday morning, is my last chance. Please, you have got to take me to some airline offices so I can try to get a ticket. If you won’t take me, I’ll have to go by myself. I have got to go home, Dmitri.” He agreed, and I went to sleep feeling anxious but relieved.

The next morning I woke up at 6:58 to the sun streaming through the living room windows. I lay on the couch in my long underwear shirt and tried to think about the warmth of the duvet and the way the light fell on the plaster wall, and not about what lay before me that day. But slowly the tension began to seep in. I tried not to wonder about what would happen if I could not find a ticket out of the country; tried not to think about failing and missing the plane that was taking off from London 22 hours from then. “You’re stranded in Moscow with no assurance you’ll ever get out, about to be married off to the stranger whose couch you’re sleeping on,” I thought. “Things really can’t get any worse.”

Literally 30 seconds after I formed this thought, the French doors to the living room flew open and Dmitri burst into the room. He was screaming at me in a panic, running in circles and pulling at his frizzy blonde hair with both hands. It was so surprising, and so out of character, that I actually laughed. I pulled the covers up to my nose and watched him, not knowing what to think. He ran around the living room a few more times and then stopped and looked at me with something like fury, or terror; I couldn’t tell which.

“Get up!” he shouted at me, “Get up and put on your pants! Now! NOW! We have got to get out of here!”

I grabbed my jeans off the edge of the couch and pulled them on. “Mitya, Mitya,” I said, totally confused, “What’s the matter? What’s happening?”

“There is war in the streets! Voina na ulitse!” he hollered, running his hands through his hair and gesturing wildly at the windows.

I leapt off the couch and ran to the window, pulled back the lace curtain. Below, the street was quiet and peaceful. An old woman in a black coat walked a terrier down the sidewalk. The air through the half-open window was cool and fresh. I turned around and faced Dmitri. “Dmitri,” I said sternly, “There is no war in the streets. What are you talking about?”

In his distress, Dmitri had apparently completely lost the ability to speak English. He burst into tears and yelled at me in Russian, “Gorbachev kaput! Gorbachev kaput!” And then, throwing his hands up in the air and resuming his running in circles, “Perevorot! Perevorot!” He yelled perevorot a couple more times and then fled out of the room, leaving me alone with the quiet morning. I grabbed my red Katzner’s dictionary off of my backpack and quickly flipped through it. This was a word I’d never heard before. I knew the prefix, pere, meant “around,” but I had no idea how to puzzle out the word’s exact meaning. Finally, I found it.

Now, I know I am remembering this incorrectly. I know that with this word, just like with every word in the dictionary, there had to have been ancillary information attached to it. An italicized “n” for noun, for example, and alternate meanings. But in my memory, I swear I looked at that dictionary and the translation of that word was there all by itself, in bold all-caps, a couple of font sizes bigger than the words surrounding it. I swear, when I looked at that word and its meaning clicked into focus, it made a noise that others could hear. Perevorot, it said: REVOLUTION.

“Ohhh,” I said, letting the dictionary slide out of my lap and slowly standing up. Suddenly, things had gotten a lot worse.

Push the button, hard.
I ran from the living room and turned right into the hallway, towards the kitchen. Surely Dmitri’s mother would be there with a cup of tea for me. Surely we could sit in her breakfast nook and talk about the upcoming wedding, or who we would visit that day.

On the way to the kitchen I passed Mitya’s parents’ room and skidded to a stop in front of the open door when I heard the blaring of a man’s caustic voice. I looked in to see Dmitri’s dad sitting on the edge of the bed, a radio cradled in his lap. His head was bent, and he was crying. To see this big, cheerful man who had laughed and joked while trying to figure out how to use my camera (“push the button HARD,” I kept telling him as we all doubled over with laughter) bent over a radio with tears falling from his cheeks was not right, I thought, it was somehow obscene.

I ran away from the room without saying anything and sped towards the kitchen. Mitya’s mother was standing at the stove over a frying pan of sizzling bliny, spatula hovering in front of her. She stared straight ahead, listening to the broadcast from the radio on the sideboard, where the same man made his bombastic pronouncements.

I turned and ran back into the hallway, towards Mitya’s room. He was in the living room, sitting on the edge of the unmade couch, watching the television. Finally, some information. What is this revolution, why is everyone crying, how can Gorbachev be “kaput”? I sat down next to him and clung to his arm. On television, in front of a blue-curtained background, a group of 8 or so men sat somberly at a curved oak desk. Several of them looked nervous and uncomfortable; all of them looked tired. The one in the middle was reading from a set of prepared notes in a loud, authoritarian voice. The tone of his voice was mean – even without being able to understand what he was saying I could tell that he was chastising us for our stupid mistakes. The jig was up, he was clearly telling us; it was time to set things right.

“What is he saying?” I whined at Dmitri, shaking his shoulder. “What is happening?”

“He is saying Gorbachev is gone,” replied Dmitri in a completely flat voice. “He is saying communism is coming back and things are going back how they were. He is saying is over.”

“Dmitri,” I barked, leaping off the couch and frantically grabbing my things and throwing them in my pack. “Listen to me. Listen to me. You have got to take me to the embassy. Do you understand? You have got to take me to the embassy!”

“Yes, OK. OK,” said Dmitri, getting up and walking out of the room.

The four of us stood in the foyer as Dmitri and I pulled on our shoes. Dmitri’s father handed him his keys and as he did he said to him, “Get her out of here.” Much as I liked Dmitri’s dad, I could not tell if he was saying that for my benefit – because he was worried about my safety and wanted me to get home – or for theirs. Because suddenly an American houseguest was not a novelty or a curiosity, but a liability, and perhaps a deadly one. I felt like a grenade with the pin pulled as his parents gingerly hugged me. As Dmitri’s dad walked with him out the door, Mitya’s mother pulled me aside and handed me a piece of paper. It was letterhead with Dmitri’s name and address on it, no doubt something he used in his career as an actor. “Take this,” she said, hurriedly folding the paper and thrusting it at me, “Maybe you can help us if you get home.”

We ran down the stairs and out to the car, not speaking. Dmitri drove several blocks to the embassy and parked on the street. “I will stay here,” he said. “Hurry.”

I jumped out of the car, showed my passport to the guard at the door, and pulled open the door to the lobby. A young man not much older than myself stood behind a counter. “Can I help you?” he said.

Usually, whenever I tell this story, the first thing people ask me is why I did not immediately go to the US embassy as soon as I realized my train wasn’t coming in. Isn’t that why the embassy is there, they wonder, to aid their countrymen? Well, no. At least, I never thought so. Sure, if you’re being pursued by the KGB, if you’ve got the microfilm that the world has to see, or the telegram that will avert WWIII, by all means, visit the embassy. But if you just had some bad luck, or your own stupid choices got you into your current mess, don’t waste the embassy’s time. The embassy is like 911. Don’t fritter away your credibility with them by calling because you’ve lost your car keys. Save it for a real emergency. Well if there’s any time to throw yourself on the mercy of US bureaucracy, I reasoned, a surprise coup by hard-line communists is probably it.

“I hope so,” I told the boy. “Look, you must know what’s going on outside. And I’m not here to ask you for money, or even for help, really. I’m just here to ask for some advice.” I explained the particulars of my problem to him. He listened with no expression. I finished my story and asked him, “What would you do if you were me?”

There was a moment of silence. Then he kind of snorted and said, and I am not making this up, “Dude. You’re fucked.”

I was astounded, but in too much of a hurry for his reply to really register. “Well,” I said, glaring at him, “Can I at least use your phone?”

“Do you have $4.00?” he replied.

I turned on my heel and ran out the front door. Under normal circumstances I would have been livid, would have demanded to speak to his supervisor, made lengthy speeches about how I am a taxpayer and a citizen and deserve better treatment, written a letter to the editor, etc., etc. But these were not normal circumstances. The clock was ticking, Dmitri was waiting in the car, and that option for help had simply been crossed off the list. I didn’t have time to get angry – if anything, this experience simply confirmed my worst fears about my own country and government. If I ever made it back to those two things, I’d deal with it then. Right now I had bigger problems.

“Where now?” asked Dmitri as I slammed the car door.

I sat for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. Then, “Dmitri, please, take me to British Airways.” I have no idea why I said this. I’d never flown British Airways, didn’t even know if they had an office in Moscow. But I’d been rejected by my own country, I thought, and if anywhere would be a safe place to ride out this bloody coup, surely it would be with the British. They’d have soft lighting and solid furniture in their office, and prints of spaniels. There might even be scones. And their response to any chaos would be bemused politeness, I was sure. I’d be all right there.

Dmitri started the car and pulled out onto the empty Ring Road, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares. He’d gone perhaps 1/8th of a mile when a cluster of blue barricades blocked our way. Dmitri cut the engine. “Where are we?” I asked as he opened his door and unfolded himself from the car.

Ring Road and Moskva River in front of the White House. Source.
“This is Russian White House,” he said, “Where president lives.” I also got out of the car and we walked past the barricades and up the middle of the deserted boulevard. A small crowd of Russians – maybe 75 in all – had gathered across from the White House. They paced on the broad promenade than ran in between the Ring Road and the Moskva River, staring at the big, pristine building. On the other side of the Ring Road was a wide plaza that stretched about 500 feet to the steps of the White House. On this plaza, a couple of bored looking cops stood around, smoking cigarettes. Beyond the policemen, several men attached to large television cameras scurried back and forth, taking shots of the crowd and of the quiet façade of the building. Surprisingly, there were no barricades.

Today, everyone knows what happened. Oh, we can say, more or less accurately, the collapse of communism was a good thing! Freedom won, democracy triumphed, butterflies and puppies fell from the sky! But right then, for me and for the other people standing there, and for the millions of people watching CNN for the three days it took the coup to fail, it was completely unclear that this story would end happily. For the people who witnessed it, it was terrifying. No one had any reason to think that the outcome of this latest experiment with freedom would be any different than Hungary in 1956, or Prague in 1968, or any of the other countless times that people tried to assert themselves only to be crushed by their own government. There was a profound resignation and sadness on the faces of the crowd gathered there; they looked less like people bent on protest and more like relatives come to identify the body. When I tell this story today, folks say “How wonderful that you got to witness this historic moment!” But right then, no one knew what was happening. We only knew it was bad.

Because of my rudimentary Russian, my family at home had a much better grasp of what was going on than I did. If I’d been at home watching television with my family, I would’ve heard something like “Early this morning a group of hard-line communists placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his dacha. The leaders of the coup assert that the reforms of Perestroika have gone too far, too fast, and have barricaded themselves in the White House to consolidate their hold on power.” Instead, all I knew was that eight weasely-looking men in bad suits had made my Russian family cry, and that something was happening at the White House that was important enough to interest at least three cameramen. I stood watching the scene with Dmitri and the other Russians, and then suddenly, I had an idea.

I broke away from the group and ran across the Ring Road and onto the plaza in front of the White House. Absolutely no one tried to stop me as I accosted one of the cameramen. “What’s happening?” I yelled at him, filling his lens with my frantic expression and grabbing him by both arms. “What is going on? Do you know? Do you know?”

“Non! Non!” yelped the poor French journalist as he shook himself free and ran off in the other direction. I turned and looked for another cameraman, and then another, running up to them as they filmed and demanding to know what was going on. If they were here filming, I assumed, they must have some idea of what they were filming, some context to put it in.

But each camera I approached was manned by a non-English speaker – a Frenchman, a Korean, a German. None of these people could tell me anything, and all of them desperately tried to avoid me as I blotted out their live view of history in the making. They’d bob and weave and attempt to detour around me; I’d feint and parry and block their path.

And strangely, instead of talking to the cameramen, I found myself every time looking straight into the camera and asking my questions. I remember thinking about the absurdity of this as I was doing it – about how the audiences at home in Seoul or Toulouse would react when suddenly a hysterical American filled up their televisions, screaming incoherent questions into the camera only inches away from their surprised faces.

“Hey!” I thought, pathetically, “I bet I’m on TV right now in some country somewhere!” Then, a much darker thought occurred to me. What if I’m on TV right now in my own country? What if CNN is here right now (I looked around nervously) and they film me, and my mother, who I was absolutely sure would be watching, sees me? I’m not supposed to even be in Moscow right now, and certainly not at a coup. If mom saw me on TV, I quickly realized, I would catch it when I got home.

I ran back across the street to Dmitri and tried to blend in with the crowd, which had grown considerably larger. Perhaps 500 people now stood across from the White House, and suddenly, all of them began to applaud. Since we had arrived early and were at the very front of the crowd, we had no problem seeing the group of men and women who tramped up the steps of the White House. They stood at the top of the stairs, blocking the doors, holding a long tri-color banner and chanting something. “What are they saying?” I asked Dmitri, “What’s that they’re holding?”

“Is Russian flag,” he said, not taking his eyes off them. “They are saying ‘We will sooner die than surrender our country’.”

The question of whether or not they’d have to floated between us as Mitya and I stood looking at each other. “Dmitri,” I said for the thousandth time that morning, “What is happening?”

This time, Dmitri seemed to know. He looked at me and spread his arms out wide. “You are witnessing the death of my country,” he told me. Then he began to cry.

We stood side by side as the crowd behind us swelled into the thousands. By the end of the day it would number over 100,000 and barricades would be thrown up, but then, at 10:00 in the morning, the only representatives of authority in sight were 20 or so traffic police. After a while, the chanting people went away and a man dressed like a priest walked up the stairs of the White House, which was obviously the stage upon which this drama would unfold, and began to address the crowd. “Dmitri,” I whispered in English, “Who is that man dressed like a priest?”

“He is a priest,” Dmitri whispered back.

The crowd became less silent and more animated. People towards the back began to shout things at the White House, things I could not understand. A very old lady materialized next me, and she seemed particularly angry. Every few minutes or so she would look at me and make an emphatic pronouncement, with which I would just as emphatically agree. More and more television cameras appeared, standing across from us and filming the crowd as it hollered and grumbled. I was afraid of the crowd, afraid of what might happen, and I knew my valuable time was ticking away. But it was impossible to leave. I had to stay, there was no question. I had to see what would happen.

What happened was this:

A half an hour after the priest had finished his speech, which was enthusiastically received, a single, terrified yowl went up from the crowd. To the right of us, trundling across the bridge and heading towards us, was a line of olive-colored army tanks. Twenty four of them (I counted). Twenty four tanks is a lot of tanks, particularly when you are right at the front of the crowd, right up next to the road the tanks will soon be driving on. The tanks made their inexorable progress towards us and we stood, frozen to the spot. Finally, the tanks pulled up onto the Ring Road, directly in front of us. They were so close to us that, as the crowd first moved backwards and, once the tanks stopped, surged forwards again, I was literally leaning on the front of one of them, the crowd pressed to my back. I had never been this close to a tank, but I took some comfort in the fact that the guns of the tanks, which were pointed at the crowd, stuck out way over the people behind me. If they fired into the crowd, I decided, they wouldn’t hit me. I began scrutinizing the body of the tank I was leaning against, trying to determine how I might climb up and over it when they started shooting.

It took about 20 minutes for the crowd to become used to the presence of the tanks in front of them. It was clear that they were there to fire on us, but it was also clear that they weren’t planning to fire just yet. We stood there murmuring to each other, wondering what to do now. Then, without warning, the old lady standing next to me did something astounding. Instead of trying to back away, or duck, or extract herself from what was obviously going to turn into a massacre, she reached up and grabbed onto the front of the tank and hoisted herself onto it. As I stood and watched, open mouthed with surprise, she scrambled up the body of the tank and began hammering on the hatch with her fists. “Come out!” she hollered, banging away, “Show yourself! I demand to speak to you!”

A few seconds passed and the hatch began to open. The old lady leaned back as the top was lifted and a white hand and arm lowered it back onto the tank. Then the head and shoulders of a very young, very scared-looking soldier emerged. The old woman wasted no time. “Vor!” she hollered at the young man, making a fist with her thumb inserted between the index and middle fingers. I had seen this gesture many times and knew that it was what Russians did when they were calling out a thief. “You are a thief!” she cried. “Shame on you, shame on you!”

The young man looked sheepish. Here he was, away from home and in the army, captain of a deadly, terrifying weapon, and yet try as he might he still couldn’t escape the criticism of his grandmother. In fact, I noticed, he actually called her grandmother when he tried to stammer out a reply to her wrathful charges. “Grandmother, grandmother,” he stuttered, “Forgive me! I don’t mean you any harm.” Indeed, he did look genuinely sorry. This had no effect whatsoever on the furious old lady, who continued.

“You are going to fire on your own people, yes? Is that what you are going to do? Shoot us? Shoot me? Shame on you, son,” she shook her head, “It is a terrible, terrible shame upon you.”

I was absolutely, completely flabbergasted by this woman’s actions. She conducted herself as if being menaced by tanks was a daily occurrence, gave the obvious danger she was in not a single thought. That’s it, I decided, if I ever get out of this and make it home, I am going to vote in every single election that ever happens. I’ll travel to other cities to vote in their elections, I swore to myself. Even if it doesn’t matter, even if it’s just supporting a corrupt system, even if it is choosing the lesser of two terrible evils, I will vote no matter what, and every time I do I will think about this unknown lady who was clearly just about to be shot by this irritated, embarrassed, terrified soldier. I will do this as a way to remember you, I thought, because it is something you want so desperately to be able to do. Desperately enough to die for it.

I looked around for a way to escape the crowd and the tanks. Up until now this had been an interesting experience, but something I myself was not invested in. I was witnessing it, sure, but this was not my country, and these were not my people. But I had stood next to this old lady for the last hour and had spent it thinking about her, about where she came from, and how she found the courage to come down here. I looked into her angry, wrinkled face as she swore at the soldier and the White House and the usurpers inside of it. When this boy finally grew tired of being berated by her in front of all these strangers, he’d pull out his army-issue pistol and shoot her in the face, or the chest. Most certainly he would. These were his orders. She would fall off the tank, limp and bloody, and I and the people next to me would catch her to keep her from hitting the ground. This would cause the crowd to go crazy, I knew. They’d riot at the sound of the gunshot, even if they never saw who it was meant for. The soldier on the tank would climb out of his hole and in terror and remorse would begin firing his pistol directly into the crowd at his feet. The tanks would begin shelling the thousands gathered there. People would scatter, jumping over the low wall and into the dirty Moskva River to try and escape, but it would be too late. I had to get out of here, now.

As I looked around fruitlessly for a way to escape, I saw something unexpected. All around me, on every single tank in the line, people were climbing up and talking to the young soldiers. I saw a man in a cheap brown business suit, ridiculously still clutching his briefcase, engaged in heated debate with a soldier. I saw a group of housewives, tired-looking women, sitting around the hole of another tank talking to the boy inside of it like an errant child. Interestingly, all of the people who climbed on the tanks were old or middle aged. There were no people the soldiers’ age berating or challenging them, just an older, wiser generation of Muscovites who had lived their entire lives under the slow rot of communism. These people, it was clear, were trying to talk sense into their offspring; they were engaged, quite literally, in the argument of their lives.

Finally, the soldiers’ patience ended. An older man in uniform several tanks to the left of me popped out of his hole and stood on the tank. “Enough!” he hollered to the crowd. “Get back! Now! Now!”

The people scrambled off the tanks as one by one, 24 engines flared into life. The crowd grew absolutely silent, and I bent my head and flattened my body against the humming tank, waiting for the verdict. A minute passed and then, slowly, the guns on the tanks began to move. They swept slowly over the frozen crowd and kept on rotating until they were pointed not at their uncles and grandmothers, but at the strangers in the White House. An immense cheer went up from the crowd and I burst at once into hysterical, gasping sobs. Dmitri, who had been standing beside me the entire time, grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me towards him. “Come on!” he hollered, leading me through the ecstatic crowd, “We must get your ticket!”


I never knew what happened to Dmitri after I bought my ticket at British Airways and made it home to Florida. Even after I moved back to Moscow, 2 years later, I never saw him again. But I have always wondered.

And so, in 2006, I Googled him. I used the “image search” function of Google to try to find a picture of him. If he’s an actor, I figured, there might be some photos of him. My search returned some results. There was a mention of a Dmitri Orlov who acted in the 1920s and who might have been his great-grandfather. There was a current Dmitri Orlov who definitely was an actor, and I grew excited and hopeful, but this Dmitri was dark-haired and way too handsome. But then there was another Dmitri Orlov. He had the same unruly blonde hair and might have been the right age. But it was hard to tell. In the pictures, he was giving a speech in front of a large auditorium, and the picture-taker was way in the back. And what was this Dmitri Orlov speaking about? I scrutinized the results and found that he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union, something I knew both he and I knew something about. Could this be him? I read some of his essays, and found that instead of thinking about the coup that was more than 10 years gone I was thinking about my own family, my husband, my baby daughter. What if something like that happens here, I thought? I knew what it was like, I thought. I had better prepare.

So perhaps Dmitri Orlov has saved my life twice, as I get out of debt and become more self-sufficient. It is fitting, and unbelievable, that Dmitri Orlov has been next to me during two different collapses. Dmitri, if that’s you, if you are the one currently writing about how we can navigate our own slow dissolution of faith in the way things have always been, I thank you. I thank you once, and I thank you, once again.

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