Monday, November 30, 2015

Red Ticket: Lenin's Brain

Soviet Cheese
The man looked like trouble, with his long black coat and pinched face. I should have just kept walking.

I had walked up to the metro station to buy bread from the back of what was not technically a bread truck. The man in the coat approached as I walked away from the cluster of customers, clutching my oval-shaped loaf of frozen brown bread.

He blocked my way and opened one side of his trench coat, exactly the way they do in movies. Tied to the inside lining of his coat was a long tube of plastic-wrapped something. “Pssst, devushka,” he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes darting around nervously, “Hochesh seer?”

"Hey girl. Do you want cheese?"

That’s it? Cheese? Not drugs, or jewelry, or counterfeit money? How ignominious for this poor man, the first black-market cheese-pusher I had ever encountered. His children would never be able to grow up and write a memoir, or a country song. “Daddy Sold Black-Market Cheese” just didn’t grip the imagination the way some other things might. And anyway, wasn’t cheese legal? Why all the cloak and dagger?

The absurdity of the situation was quickly eclipsed by the fact that I very much did want cheese. “Da,” I whispered back to the man. We stood close together as he untied the industrial-sized tube of white cheese from his coat. He passed it to me and I stuck it under my sweater and gave him the 60 rubles he requested. I went home ecstatic to have something to eat other than bread, the cold plastic of the wrapper pressing against my stomach.

Now, you might think that buying purloined cheese from a mysterious stranger on the street was not a good idea. In normal times, in normal places, you would be absolutely correct. However in Moscow, in 1993, people sold any and everything they could think of to make ends meet.

Just the day before, for example, I had gone to a market after school to try to find food. I had finally managed to have a serious talk with Galina Petrovna, my teacher, about the fact that I was starving, and she had looked at me like I was an imbecile and had said “go to a market.”

Of course, a market! I remembered going to an outdoor market in the summer of 1991 with my classmates. The Russians there had sold everything from honey to farmer’s cheese to pickled garlic, all of it homemade in their dacha kitchens. The government at the time turned a blind eye to these farmers’ markets, which were the first attempts at non-black market private industry since Lenin’s failed New Economic Policy of the 1920s.

Unlike the state-run grocery stores with their withered potatoes and murky jars of whole tomatoes, the farmers’ market offered fresh, beautiful, high-quality produce, dairy, and meat. My trip to the market in 1991 had been one of the high points of my stay in Moscow during my first visit, but it had never occurred to me to go to one this time. It was the dead of winter in a bleak and hungry city. If people had something to eat, surely they’d eat it themselves. Who on earth would have spare vegetables to sell?

But Galina Petrovna told me to go to a market and so, after class ended, I hopped on the metro. Galina had said that markets were everywhere, that all I needed to do was find a train station and follow the people. I looked at the map in the metro and randomly chose a station in a part of town I was not familiar with. Twenty minutes later I emerged from underneath the Yaroslavski train station, and, obeying my teacher, followed the people.

She was right; they led me to a market. But not the kind that sold food, unfortunately. This market, which was packed with worried-looking vendors, sold items that were sometimes difficult to identify, but which definitely were not edible. A middle-aged woman stood in front of an upended cardboard box, on which were placed four dirty porcelain round things that might have been insulators. A man beside her was holding a small black rubber contraption that turned out to be a toilet tank float. Beside him stood another man, selling an actual toilet. Another family stomped their feet and rubbed their arms, trying to keep warm as they waited for a buyer for the loops of used wire they were peddling. Some of the items – like the wire and the insulators – were small. Others, like the toilet, or the chandelier, were larger, and appeared to have been ripped directly out of whatever they’d been attached to.

The people in this market were the opposite of the sellers in the farmers’ market. Whereas those vendors had yelled to you as you passed, talking up their bags of walnuts and bloody chickens, these folks were grim and silent, sad.

A middle-aged man was standing next to me in front of the row of vendors. He was watching me watch the sellers, I noticed, and when I looked at him he smiled wryly at me and raised his eyebrows. His look said “Yep, this is a fine how-do-you, all right.” He seemed friendly so I asked him, “Kakoy rinok?” (What kind of market?)

“This is the Jew market,” he replied.

“What?” I looked around, alarmed. I had heard about the high levels of anti-Semitism in Russia, was familiar with this country’s terrible pogroms from my studies of Russian history and from repeated viewings of Fiddler on the Roof, but this was too much. “What? They sell Jewish people here?”

“No no,” said the man, laughing, “These people are emigrating. To Palestine.” He gave me a knowing nod.

I looked at the people in the market again, seeing them with fresh eyes. They were selling every last thing they had before they left, up to and including, literally, the kitchen sink. No wonder they looked so sad. And we, the buyers. Were we helping them by buying their stuff? Financing their trip? Or were we vultures picking over the shabby detritus of these people’s dashed hopes for their homeland?

I turned from the man and began walking around aimlessly, looking more at the people doing the selling than at the goods they offered. This ad-hoc market under the rusting bridge reminded me of terrible stories I had read about what happened after towns were “cleansed” by the Nazis in World War II. About how the neighbors would assemble after their village’s baker or butcher or banker and his family had been carted off in the middle of the night, and would argue over who got the piano. Of course this was different; these folks were leaving voluntarily, and there was no violence. But to say that the scene was peaceful would be utterly wrong.

As I was leaving, I passed a woman sitting at a table near the exit, away from the rest of the vendors. This woman seemed different from the others, somehow. For one thing, the table she was sitting at seemed sturdier and more permanent, like this was a place she came to regularly. There was even a little sign attached to the front advertising the goods for sale. And instead of a haphazard collection of fixtures and do-dads, this woman was selling only one thing: light bulbs.

I stopped and looked at the wide array of bulbs she had on display and then, noticing something, picked one of them up and shook it gently. The filament inside the cloudy gray glass rattled slightly. I looked at the rest of the bulbs and noticed that the one I had picked up was no fluke. All of them were burned out. I stepped back and looked at the sign. “Light bulbs,” it said “5 rubles.”

Even though I sensed I would be sorry, I had to ask. “Why are you selling light bulbs that don’t work?”

I will spare you the details of our actual conversation, which lasted about 15 minutes because I kept repeating my questions, certain that I was misunderstanding the woman. But at last, I had to admit that the story she was telling me actually did go just like this:

“I am selling burned-out light bulbs because light bulbs are difficult to find in Moscow. So, when someone is at work in their office, they will take a working light bulb from there to use at home. They don’t want to just leave the office light empty, though, so they come to me and buy a burned-out light bulb to replace the one that they took.”

Scarily, I was momentarily satisfied with this answer. “Oh,” I thought, “That explains it.” But then, wait. I stood and thought carefully for a few seconds, trying to find the flaw in my logic. “OK,” I said to the woman, patiently, “But why doesn’t the person just replace the bulb they took from their office with the burned-out one from their house?”

The woman looked at me like I was some kind of monster. “Because,” she exclaimed, “That would be stealing!"

So people in Moscow sold all kinds of seemingly useless things that, upon closer inspection, had significant value. To turn away a man just because his cheese was of uncertain origin would be foolish, I knew. I sat on my windowsill and watched the snow blow around as I devoured half of the foot-long tube of cheese, savoring the delicious smoky flavor that blended so well with the rough Russian bread.

I passed the day happily, nibbling on cheese and studying, or writing in my spiral notebook. I was in a great mood, not only because of the unexpected cheese treat, but also because I had plans for that evening. Betsy had moved in with Nadejda Alexandrovna, the elderly mother of our Russian professor, and I was going to visit them. I was happy to have a destination, and a new person to meet. Plus, I was curious to see the inside of this woman’s apartment, where she’d lived for 50 years.

Late afternoon came and I took the metro to Taganskaya, an older area of the city where Nadejda lived. Betsy met me at the metro and as we walked to her new place, she handed me a bottle of Madeira wine. “I bought this for Nadejda,” she said, “But you should say it’s from you. She frowns on drinking because of her religious convictions, but secretly, she enjoys it. If a guest brings her wine, she’ll have to drink it so as not to appear rude. She’s upset right now, and could use a drink. Her cat ran away.”

Remembering the light-bulb vendor, I nodded. In the cosmic game of rock-paper-scissors, politeness to a guest trumps even God, I guess.

We got to Nadejda’s, which was on the ground floor of a crumbling pre-Revolutionary building. The door opened into a long hallway with a threadbare oriental carpet running its entire length. The bedroom/living room was papered with rich red brocaded wallpaper; a graceful chair with overstuffed satiny pillows posed by the window. China knickknacks stood on the windowsills next to small jungles of succulent plants.

The tiny apartment was filled with the smell of the soup Nadejda had prepared, and we sat down at the table in her high-ceilinged kitchen and opened the wine. Nadejda was an elfin little woman with sharp bright eyes and a gray pixie haircut. She loved to laugh, and to talk, and she immediately began asking me questions about God. Betsy had told her that I had majored in religion, and Nadejda took this to mean that I intended to enter the priesthood.

I spoke with Nadejda carefully, not wanting to insult her with the news that I approached the study of religion the way a forensics expert might survey a crime scene. After a while, I decided it would be wise to change the subject. Let’s see, what to say…

“Nadejda Alexandrovna,” I began, “I am so sorry to hear that your cat has run away.”

“Yes,” she sighed, looking bereft. “Old Tom. How I miss his snoring! Nu ladno, tomorrow I will go down to the brain institute.”

“Oh,” I said sympathetically. And then, “Um, what?”

“Yes, the brain institute,” she repeated.

After much questioning of Nadejda, the story that emerged was this: Apparently neighborhood cats had begun disappearing from the surrounding few blocks at a rate that could not be attributed to vicious dogs, speeding automobiles, or 8-year-old boys. The distraught pet owners, I was charmed to learn, behaved exactly the way people in the US who have lost pets do. They posted flyers on telephone polls and in shops, and asked their neighbors to keep a lookout.

But then, something strange began to happen. It wasn’t like this with everyone – most of the people never saw their cats again – but it occurred often enough for a definite pattern to emerge. Some of the cats would return days or even weeks later. They’d be seemingly normal, but the grateful owners would soon notice that all of the prodigal cats had bald spots on their temples, right in front of their ears. Someone had shaved these cats and had released them after they’d done whatever it was they were doing to them. When the second cat in a row returned with plastic circles stuck to its temples and EKG wires trailing from its head, the jig was up. The neighborhood was scandalized – up in arms! The brain institute, they realized, was kidnapping their cats and experimenting on them!

The Brain Institute (Joy Neumeyer)
Suddenly droves of worried cat owners descended upon this institute, one of Russia’s preeminent locations for the study of cognitive processes, demanding to know what had happened to Mishka, and Pou-Pou. And tomorrow, Nadejda declared, she would add to their numbers. She was going to march right down to that brain institute and demand that they hand over Tom, her fluffy orange companion.

I squinted at Nadejda over my wine, overwhelmed by this information. “Wow,” I finally said. “So, when the cats come back, are they normal? Do they have any special powers? Can they talk? I mean, what exactly are they doing with these cats down at the institute?”

“Well,” breathed Nadejda, clutching her wine glass by its stem and leaning forward conspiratorially, “My friend works there, mopping the floor. And she says that they have a secret room there where the cats are taken. She’s going to let me see it one day after the others have left, she says. And do you know what is in this room?” Nadejda raised her eyebrows and widened her already wide eyes.

“No,” I whispered, on the edge of my seat, “What is in there?”

Nadejda looked around the kitchen, savoring the information she was about to share. “LENIN’S BRAIN,” she intoned. She sat back in her chair and folded her arms over her chest, satisfied.

“No!” I gasped.

“Da, da,” said Nadejda, mildly, “My friend says she has seen it herself.”

What could this mean, I thought to myself. What kinds of nefarious plans could those brain scientists be hatching? I had seen plenty of movies about this very thing, and knew that it almost never ended well. Had these Russians, buffeted by their changing fortunes and their demise as one of the world’s two great super-powers, decided that an immortal leader was too much to ask for and that maybe one with only nine lives would have to do? Would a neighborhood cat appear soon, stroking its chin and asking “what is to be done?”

My mind was on fire with the possibilities this story suggested – surely the world had to know! – but Nadejda would say no more. Nu ladno, oh well, it was 9:30 and we had eaten Nadejda’s soup and drunk up all the wine, and it was time for me to be on my way.

“Excuse me,” I said, getting up and walking towards the tiny room that housed the toilet. I felt a tad unsteady as I walked down the hall, which I attributed to the wine and the warmth and the story.

Forty-five minutes later, I woke up on the uneven concrete floor of the bathroom. My cheek was pressed to the cool floor and I was freezing despite the fact that my black coat was thrown over me. A horrible, sulfurous stench thickened the air and the front of my sweater was wet and warm. I moved my head slightly, looking past the base of the toilet to where Betsy sat on the floor, reading Stephen King’s The Green Mile.

“Betsy,” I moaned, “What’s happening?”

“I have no idea,” said Betsy. “You went to the bathroom and then after you didn’t come back for a while I went to see what happened. I found you lying on the floor, covered with vomit and shit. What’d you eat, anyway? Anchovies? Cat food?”

At the mention of anchovies and cat food my stomach rolled over sickeningly and I groped across the concrete floor to the toilet.

“Agh,” I said, lying on my face after five minutes of vigorous barfing, “The cheese. It must have been the cheese.”

I lay on the floor, sweating and panting, then chattering with chills into an uneasy sleep, only to resurface every ten minutes to resume throwing up. I had had food poisoning before, but this was the sickest I had ever been, I knew. That’s Russia all right, the land of superlatives. I cursed the cheese man as I vomited up the soup that Nadejda’d used her scant pension to buy, then lay on the floor crying over the calories I had fought so hard to find and could not afford to lose. I lambasted myself for my incompetence and ineptitude, and for ruining poor Nadejda’s house.

“She’ll have to move,” I thought, as I felt another wave work its way from my stomach to my throat. “No one could live here after this. They’ll have to raze the building."

And Betsy, I’d never be able to look at Betsy again. I think one time back in Gainesville I might have bought her a beer at Market Street Pub, but this certainly didn’t oblige her to spend all night sitting on the concrete floor of the toilet, holding back my stinking hair as I threw up my liver. Did it? And if the vomit were on the other foot, so to speak, would I be able to do what Betsy was doing, or would I just board up the bathroom door and run away? I honestly didn’t know.

A while later, Nadejda Alexandrovna’s voice said, “I am going to call an ambulance.”

“No, no!” I cried, waking up suddenly and curling into a fetal position. I had been explicitly warned by people who had reason to know that under no circumstances – even if I got my arm caught in a wood chipper while delivering quintuplets – was I to go to a Russian hospital. It was widely known that since the collapse of the USSR, hospitals had fallen on hard times and were reusing syringes, spreading HIV, hepatitis, and all kinds of other nasty diseases. If they got their hands on me in the state I was in, God knows what they would do. “No doctors! No doctors!”

More time passed and Nadejda again appeared, this time with a glass of water. “Robin,” she said, grabbing the neck of my sodden sweater and pulling me into a sitting position. “You must drink this.”

Ah, water. I took a small sip. It was boiling hot, and had what tasted like mustard stirred into it. I swallowed it and immediately began throwing up more violently than ever. “What are you doing?” yelled Betsy, “What did you give her?”

“This is mustard water,” said Nadejda. “If she refuses to go to the hospital, she must drink it. The mustard will draw out whatever poison is in her. And she has to put something in her stomach so she’ll have something to throw up. Otherwise she’ll rupture herself.”

I lay on the floor or on the edge of the toilet seat well into the night, vomiting. Finally, around 4:30 am, the spasms stopped and I was able to get up and go lie in the bed that Betsy and Nadejda would have been sharing had they not had to spend all night awake with me, their dinner guest. I stayed in that bed, sleeping and running a high fever, from Thursday night until Sunday morning. I have no idea where Betsy and Nadejda slept during the time I took up the one bed in the apartment. The kitchen? The brain institute? I have no idea.

At one point I woke up briefly to find Betsy entering the room with a plastic bag. She sat on the edge of the bed and held out a white bottle with a colorful label. “Drink this,” said Betsy, “It’s a yogurt smoothie.”

“Where’d you go?” I asked her as I sipped at the bottle.

“To a job interview,” said Betsy.

“Ahhh,” I thought, as I fell back into sleep, “Betsy will get a job and take care of us all.” I dreamed of peacocks and cats riding on battleships, speaking Russian. I sweated through my clothes and every sheet in the house. Finally, I opened my eyes for good. The fever was gone, like it had never been there. I felt light and ethereal, transparent, as I tottered into the kitchen.

“You’re well!” said Nadejda, clapping me on the shoulder. She and Betsy were involved in some kind of complex task, unwrapping something large that was all angles and sharp edges.

“We have a surprise for you!” said Nadejda as she bent over and removed the last bit of tape and newspaper, revealing a sled. “We’re all going somewhere!”

“Uh, where?” I said, eyeing the sled nervously.

Volodya the TV Repairman
“We’re going into the forest for sledding! Volodya the TV repairman is coming over; he wants to meet you!”

“I…I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for me to go sledding right now,” I said. People in America certainly did not cap off a debilitating illness with a vigorous bout of sledding. People in America lay on their couches, sucking on chips of ice and watching re-runs of “Good Times” on the TV.

“Nonsense!” chirped Nadejda. “It will restore you to health!”

I looked at Betsy, but she shrugged. Well, I decided, perhaps this would finish me off for good. We walked out the door and into the sparkling morning, heading for the commuter train station and our ride into the forest. I was light-headed, nearly floating over the crust of snow on the ground. The world around me shimmered, and everything smelled and looked and felt violently, noisily alive.

Nadejda beat a path through the people on the sidewalk ahead of us, pulling the sled by a rope, as Betsy and I lagged behind, walking in silence with our heads bent. Finally, Betsy snorted. “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you’re holy,” she said.

“What?” I was completely surprised by this. “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you’re a terrible guest,” or “Nadejda Alexandrovna thinks you can’t hold your alcohol,” or even “Nadejda Alexandrovna is planning to sue you” I could have imagined. But holy? “Why?”

Betsy sighed wearily. “Because, first, she thinks that you bought her that wine, and that somehow you ‘just knew’ that that was her favorite kind. Then, she thinks that you are studying religion because you plan to be a nun, or a priest, or something. And then finally, she thinks the fact that you survived your illness means that ‘God has put his finger on you’.”

“Oh, Betsy, I’m sorry,” I said. Betsy was the one who was holy, in my opinion. Betsy was indeed a savior. And what thanks did she get? Nadejda, who was quite a ways in front of us by now, turned around suddenly and shouted to us.

“Girls, girls! Come here!” we caught up to her and she handed the rope of the sled to Betsy. “We must not allow Robin to walk,” she said. “Betsy, you must pull Robin on the sled through the snow.”

We stood in a triangle around the sled, looking at each other. Finally, Betsy snorted again. “Get on,” she said.

I sat down on the sled and Betsy leaned forward, pulling me over the snow that glittered in the street.


***

More about the brain institute, by Joy Neumeyer.

Great footage of Soviet grocery store from the 1990s, by Rick Suddeth. This is what it was like.

**

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