Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment nine

Diary entry, visit to Leningrad on invitation visa from Vladimir Illarionovich Zalesov, July 1987

17 July – Helsinki to Leningrad by train

The Soviet train is waiting. Alongside are Finnish trains bearing on their sides some warning about AIDS. The Soviet train has 7cars, 300 passengers –mostly American teenagers taking part in a People to People exchange program. Alone in the compartment, we are joined at last minute by two quiet Norwegians. As the train pulls out of the station, we sit down in the dining car. A very Soviet menu of sturgeon fish soup, then отбивное мясо or fried sturgeon for the main course (tiny, greasy), with nondescript Georgian wine by the glass and Nescafe in an expresso cup. Service is friendly and efficient – and the only irritant is that the foreigners ignore the non-smoking signs and light up, nearly every one. 

Finnish landscape – the alternating bright yellow alfalfa and green pastures with pine and birch forests – is pretty if one and the same. After three and a half hours, we reach the Soviet frontier. We stop for 20 minutes at the Finnish border town, then enter no man’s land, where Soviet customs officials board and start their detailed search. Our neighbors have, as it turns out, a religious bent and the officer finds 15 Russian language bibles in one of their bags. Then the hunt begins. Our compartment is thoroughly investigated. However, the inspection is perfunctory with us after going through my suitcase. He asks if we have gifts and I point out the cassette recorder we have for Vladimir. If that is all, he says, it’s all right. His expression is to say: ‘that’s the least you can bring your father on an invitation visa.’

The train crawls along, windows are sealed and despite the low air temperature, it quickly becomes unbearably stuffy in the train. Time starts to go very slowly as well. The landscape becomes still more monotonous and dizzying low of pine and birch trees, many of which appear to be dying from some pollution or another.

Finally we reach Vyborg, where the train stops from 18.40 to 19.00. Larisa and I leave the train and pass through the station to the street and then to the lake. The town looks neat, cared for, with well-trimmed trees adorning the shore. However, the people in the street waiting for the bus are so poorly dressed – look like the 1950s. And the buses themselves, those pitiful local buses made in L’vov, look like they were hand riveted in someone’s back yard. Here is where Larisa’s uncle Misha lives. We may look him up on the way out.

From Vyborg to Leningrad we pass through very poor and miserable region till we reach the near suburbs of the city at Repino and things improve with dacha territory. The coastal road, which I remember from excursions to the Zelenogorsk country house of the U.S. consul  in 1972, is in good shape. As we approach Leningrad’s Finland Station,  it all looks so pitiful, depressing.

Volodya is waiting for us on the platform. We are only 15 minutes late but he is in horror that we have been so delayed. The man evidently has been in an anxious state for more than a month awaiting this visit.

On the way to the house, we learn that our arrival in mid-July has certain liabilities – many of Larisa’s friends have already left town or are about to leave for vacation. All the theaters are closed, including the ballet.

Volodya pulls our heavy bags, pushes us to the head of the taxi queue over shouts of those waiting and we fear he will have his stroke here and now. The trunk of the car, already half filled by liquefied gas tank, accommodates only part of our luggage. Volodya sits in front, sharing his seat with Alexa’s suitcase. We carry hand luggage on our knees. The rattle-trap Volga jumps and bumps along the streets, reaching Vasilevsky Ostrov at last. Chetvertaya liniya, dom 59 – we stop before the garbage barrels, the local landmark. Enter the courtyard, which looks like an excavation site as a crew have dug up little water pipes to insulate them. We walk along planks, over trenches to Volodya’s entrance, then up 4 flights of stairs. Paint is peeling off the walls. By U.S. standards, it’s a regular slum tenement. Apartment 30. 

Double doors. Into the corridor. Living room is first to the left, followed by bedroom and kitchen on the left, WC and bath at the end. It’s about as I remember it, perhaps larger and better decorated. Wallpaper may be fresher. Stuffed penguin sits atop a bookcase in the corridor, a tortoise shell on the wall of the living room, where there is also a wall-mounted display case of corals and two Indonesian paintings on wood, two dark wood sculptured faces on the wall. In the living room and bedroom, there are well hung carpets and the impression generally is of layer upon layer of coverings on the walls and floors.

His apartment is like a ship’s cabin – every inch has been put to use. The kitchen also has been ‘built in’ in the Russian manner – with boards or planks. The stove is grimy. The fridge is an ancient monster. The only new item is the Nova Miniwash we gave him last November. Plates and silver are all mismatched, remnants. Larisa and I take a brief walk outside, in the twilight of White Nights; it is still unseasonably cold.

Saturday, 19 July 1987  Leningrad

We all rise very late. After an enormous breakfast consisting of sausage and cheese, rich leftovers from last night’s supper and boiled coffee, we go into town. It is a bright but cool day, with temperature in the 16 – 18 degree C range.  Together with Volodya we go in search of police for registration (local OVIR is closed today). Then we go looking for the валютный гастроном, which was situated at the start of Nevsky Prospekt, near Herzen street but now is closed, with references to other non-existent addresses. We are finally sent to the Beryozka department store near Hotel Pribaltiiskaya, where the food section, consisting mainly of liquor, tea, chocolate, coffee is closed for inventory. So we have to settle for the Hotel’s Beryozka where he unloads $120 to stock up on liquor and I get cigarettes for taxi drivers. In a word, there is nothing to buy for cash. No fresh food at all, only Danish canned ham and sodas. There are video cassette recorders, color televisions and hair dryers in the electrical goods section of the department store. But refrigerators or miniwash machines, such as we saw with Volodya in the Vneshposyltorg shop near the house this morning on the Makarova Embankment are open only for sales in ruble certificates that are available to Soviets who have worked abroad. A Soviet with dollars might as well have play money, for all it is worth to him. The only new thing in the system is that the bulldogs are at rest – there is no apparent effort to keep ordinary Soviets away from the certificate stores. And the closed shops generally are being cut back. The валютный гастроном in Moscow at the Mezhdunarodnaya complex was closed for alleged corruption and the same happened here in Leningrad – when they will reopen no one can say.

 Sunday, 26 July 1987   Leningrad

Start the day with a jog around the stadium. Larisa joins in. Then the usual heavy breakfast of oatmeal and boiled coffee.

Alexa has been spending the past several nights at Valya’s recovering from bug bites. Her first words in Russian now are :  клопы и комары. I pick her up from Valya and walk her and Vlad down to the Neva embankment so they can watch the official part of today’s Navy Day exercises. Per Alexa’s request, Vlad wears his uniform, heavily bedecked in medals. I photograph them both by the Sphinx. They return some 40 minutes later having watched the brass in a cutter salute the ships parked in the river. At noon the 4 of us take a taxi to the Metro stop Gorkovskaya to meet Valya. It is here, she says, that on weekends for the past few months young professional artists have gathered to sell paintings directly to the public. Nothing today, though (we later learn that the market has moved to another location). We next take the metro out to the apartment of the Zotovs for a name-day party.  Besides us four, there are the old architecture friends of the Zotovs. We start up a conversation with this couple straight away. The wife, with henna-dyed hair, has a very ‘Soviet’ Russian face, matronly build. He has sleepy Jewish face. Their marriage came evidently in mid-life as each has their own grown children – all, it seems, living abroad. He came from Riga, where he was a top architect. She has a daughter living in Slovenia, in a small town near Maribor, married to a local party boss. They both have visited there several times, say they were tempted to cross over into Austria to have a look, or to Italy. I say they must go to Venice by boat from Istria next time. His sons are living in the States. One is a very successful artist who gets commissions to travel around the world; the other is a furniture restorer in Boston, whom by weird coincidence, we may have met at the store of Lanska when we were in Back Bay last September. I take the Polaroid and all are stunned and delighted to have photos. 

We have brought Spanish white wine which Larisa imported from Poland and this is greatly appreciated.  On both points, we had resisted Vlad and it is a good thing. Only pity is we didn’t take some whisky, because Zotov would love to try it –never has. This get-together has a pall of sadness. Though Larisa flares up into heated dispute with Katya over Reagan, this subsides quickly as it starts. In the kitchen, Larisa tells Katya of the details of [her mother] Lydia’s death and burial, then at the table Katya offers a toast to her memory, which even Vlad reluctantly drinks to. 

All these crows are dying off. Katya tells Larisa most of their circle of architects has gone. Zotov himself looks a weak and old man – doubtful we will ever meet again. But he is lively today – puts favorite records on the record player. He recites his own seditious poems from 1937. He is enjoying having lived long enough to witness the unmasking of Stalin. Our gift digital watches and alarm clocks were received with gratitude – I put them in running order.

None wants to believe that the unmasking should go further than Stalin. It’s unthinkable anyone would attack Lenin, take the crimes back to his door. They have read Solzhenitsyn but this aspect of his work has not registered. They have read Дети Арбата about Stalin’s murder of Kirov and all are overjoyed. All have seen Покаяние. All read the papers, Огонек, Комсомольская Правда. The real action is going on in Moscow.

The meal itself is classic Russian: start with red caviar sandwiches. Table is set with cold perch, sliced roast beef, radish salad, potato salad, cabbage filled pies. There is Armenian cognac and a carafe of grape juice. No main course, instead straight to splendid dessert of a rich torte and tea with lemon. The party turns best with the tea – when everyone is relaxed, sated, and eager to talk. We talk about religion, about how the Church is making a come-back. Larisa went this morning to a service at the church where she had gone once upon a time with Lydia Danilovna. The choir was excellent, a tenor from the Mariinsky Theater. There is talk of restoring some churches to religious use. Even Katya, the Bolshevik warms up to the religious talk – says how church weddings now are shown on television, in films.

The couple of architects remain interesting for us. They let slights roll off their back. They have seen it all and survived it all.

In the evening we go out to see Lena, another old friend of Larisa’s from the geology days. She has just moved into an apartment in the harbor on Vasilevsky. It’s raining as we arrive in this dim and desolate part of town. I wonder how in hell we will get out. We climb to the 4th floor – past pails of smelly garbage. A thin blond man in his early 30s opens the door and beckons us inside. There are boxes and disorder. We go straight to the little kitchen, where Seryozha prepares tea and instant coffee. He is Lena’s son by her first marriage – has returned after marrying a Bulgarian and spending several years in Sofia. Left wife and child for reasons we don’t know and now works at the Mining Institute as a professor while living with mom and half-sister. He is attractive – a very Russian guy, classic интеллигент. He is related to Tolya in Moscow , who came up recently to join a celebration for passing the кандидат degree. About life in Bulgaria Seryozha is not a great enthusiast – saw Sofia as a provincial hole. Agrees with me that the only solidly built building in Varna is the Roman ruins. Says the place to see is Veliki Trnovo. Says Bulgarian feelings about Russia are ambivalent; one shouldn’t take their apparent love and loyalty at face value: see the rubbish they ship to Russia in two-way trade. A level-headed, attractive guy. Slim, athletic.

The apartment is a complete slum. I pretend not to notice the bedbug like insects climbing the walls. The pride of their possessions is the library – 100 packing boxes containing perhaps several thousand volumes. The furniture is dark, heavy and 19th century Russian.

Lena walks in. Heavy set, with a broad face. Thin, stringy dyed black hair, grandmotherly look. She has changed so much that Larisa at first scarcely recognizes her.

I try to be controversial, to draw them out. I say how there are no standards here any more. In Poland the artisan, craft goods can be beautiful even if industrial goods are ugly. Here, too, all which comes from factories is shoddy, ugly to behold. The only models of refinement and taste are from tsarist times. Why do they at once revile and at the same time lovingly preserve this. Our hosts are speechless. I give them my anti-museum talk: how museums are cemeteries for art, removing fine arts from the milieu in applied arts, decoration, furniture, fashion, amidst which they were created and placing them in a sterile void. I explain what is being done these days at Versailles to break up groups, to create spectacles outdoors for their amusement and so to spare the place unnecessary traffic of bored and ignorant visitors. Only when I get to say how we were amazed to see how the Hermitage has so few guards and how every fool can approach paintings and lean all over Empire furniture – only then do they begin to react.

Lena works as a guide and knows very well the level of these visitors: are the statues of angels her life? The talk become lively on the subject of Gorbachev and perestroika. It’s amazing to read the paper these days. Talk of Stolypin has disappeared, but there is nearly complete rehabilitation of Bukharin.  Lena and Seryozha have flattering words for Deti Arbata, for Pokayanie, for Moi Drug Ivan Lapshin. See the revival of the Church. Church hierarchs are shown on televised events.  Lena: Perestroika because the economy is at a critical point. The idea is to revive NEP. The pressure of the intelligentsia for democratization is at last being heeded. Seryozha: dissidents and intelligentsia have nothing to do with de-Stalinization. It is Gorbachev’s policy in order to put his team firmly in power, nothing more. Leningrad is a very conservative backwater even after the departure of Romanov. The local party boss continues to be obstructionist. Local press is drab compared to Moscow papers and journals.  The multi-candidate elections confused people.  The old-timers refused to ballot secretly: won’t the loser be offended? Though dissidents have been freed, the amnesty has not benefited nationalists and religious internees. Now the hot issue is the Tatars. Regarding farms: all talk now is on re-creating the peasant farm, i.e. the хутор, turning over cattle to private hands. The bureaucrats are in dismay. When the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Food Industry were merged to form the Ministry of Food Complexes, there was a wholesale review of the bureaucrats’ credentials and removal of persons who do not hold diplomas. Reportedly the whole Leningrad KGB was fired, half of Moscow’s. One shouldn’t worry about the chaps, though, because all found new nests in local administrations and industry. Bribery and corruption had reached gigantic proportions: all 3 cotton republics were completely rotten, withhundreds of millions of rubles of product diverted. The scoff-laws get around the ‘dry law’ today by stealing industrial spirit – see the weak liquor. Glasnost means all of society’s ills are now coming into the open: drugs, prostitution.

Lena:  our industry in Leningrad brings only pollution and financial losses. The town should be turned over to tourism. Architects are at a loss over what to do with the big 12 room apartments in old buildings. By law families can receive no more than 1 room per person even if they buy in a cooperative building. How to get around this?  Meanwhile restoration work on Old Petersburg proceeds at a snail’s pace, falling behind the decay. No money for investment, no sense of what to do with the old buildings now that communal flats are no longer acceptable to the population. How can the policy of real incentives for economic performance be put into effect when such an important area as lodgings is in the hands of levelers? 

We talk about Alcoholics Anonymous, which was greeted for the first time with interest here, about other questions, about everything except AIDS.  It’s the only discussion we’ve had in this city which didn’t in one way or another touch that problem.

We talk about nuclear power and Chernobyl. Seryozha mentions the much worse calamity in the 1950s in the Urals when a nuclear dump entered a chain reaction. Chernobyl itself is an example of wanton disregard for the safety of people by the authorities. Fire brigades were sent to the scene wearing no protection. Volunteers were sent to a certain death. The capping with sandbags was entirely unnecessary. Now the ‘clean-up’ is coming at vast cost – and is more for the sake of Public Relations than anything else. It would be preferable to simply declare a dead zone for 30 years and wait. I mention what our Poles found in Kiev: the contaminated furniture, the need to bring in food from Kishinev. This is news to them.

On museums:  there were so few guards not because the administration is easy going but because there is no allocation.

On Afghanistan:  mothers are terribly afraid for their sons. However, the boys themselves seek adventure there and fast track military careers for officers. Move to head of the queue for cars and apartments when they return. Veterans of Afghanistan get the same privileges as WWII veterans.

Lena opens a tin of sprats, puts out Edam cheese and Roquefort. We refill the tea and coffee cups. Talk goes on till 3.30 am.  Daughter, half-sister to Seryozha by Lena’s second husband, the poet, who died 5 years ago, joins us. She is a student at the philology faculty at the university, but her real passion is horse riding. She holds a master of sport title as an equestrienne, won first prize at a jumping competition in Sestroretsk. She spends at least two hours a day in the stables; she trained the horse from the start as a colt. Saddles are the weak point in equipment – only one factory exists in Moscow. Her group takes 90 minute promenades starting at 7.30 am, but do the beach only off season.

Seryozha himself has put in walls, reorganized the inner space of this rather large apartment to give greater privacy. Has been working since December. He moved  books and furniture with friends using a rented truck without laborers in order to avoid pilferage.

At 3.30 am we walk out into the drizzle. To our surprise we easily catch a taxi several blocks away. Crawl into bed at 4am dazed and exhausted.

Monday, 27 July 1987, Leningrad

Heavy rain and cold, perhaps 8 degrees C. No taxis to be found, of course, especially when you follow Vladimir’s idea of catching one at an official taxi stand.

We rise late, leave the house at half past 10.

I join Larisa at [university professor] Yekaterina Belokon’s communal flat, which is situated just around the corner from Zhelyabova and the Evropeiskaya. She has lived in this bel-etage apartment for the past 40 years. A wreck of a building, but there is a hint of past pre-revolutionary glory in the half-coffered ceilings. Her room is about 25 square meters – there are several large wardrobes and a table. The typewriter stands on a pedestal. Belokon lets me in by the back entry which I mistakenly take. We pass through the kitchen and down the corridor to her nest. She is agile and sexless – has strong, masculine face, walks energetically. Has a small but firm body. She is nearly 90, somewhat hard of hearing and with vision impaired by cataracts. As I sit down next to Larisa, she gives a very warm, carefully composed greeting. At our departure she urges us to cherish one another, to keep clear consciences. Surprising spirituality and lively mind. She still walks several miles a day and until last year took grueling bus trips across Russia for vacation. She now has stopped, because she fears being a burden to others. Says very confidentially to us, on pledge that we will not repeat it to others – so as not to endanger those who are close to her: there will be a буря, a storm, here if the reforms don’t go through. The shortcomings of the system have reached a critical point. Then she swings into a monologue on 1907-08, how she lost her father to the terrorist movement – he died of TB in prison transfer, a kind of self-willed death to save his wife and family from further persecution. Father had entered the conspiratorial SR’s, because he had witnessed solders’ reprisals against the peasants. He was imprisoned, released, then re-imprisoned after running some revolutionaries to freedom.

He was betrayed by Azov, the police informer while a member of the SR executive committee and so had unwittingly given away colleagues. Then she skips to her other passion – the Siege of Leningrad. Relates with burning pride how even in the depths of misery Leningraders had not cut down the trees in the Summer Garden. How she had offered warmth to a frozen visitor by setting afire her copy of Pushkin. Talks about the defense at…about Zhdanov’s stupid and criminal leadership, which cost so many lives needlessly. How all the food stores had been concentrated so that German precision bombing in one raid left the defenders completely without food stocks. Tells how in the good old days they were so terrorized that only slept peacefully in their beds on May 1, November 7 and New Year’s, when no arrests would be made. About the limits of Glasnost: officially today the regime plays down the siege of Leningrad because of the huge losses and wanton waste of human life.

I interrupt her extended monologue to say that people are different everywhere and we do have different mores and concerns, that while we try to be open-minded, we do have to make judgments also. Each generation has to fight for justice and truth and one generation cannot do this for all time or ensure its successors from evil, for evil comes from within us. I say the crimes of the siege are not the end of it, that there have been many, as recently as Chernobyl, and that any of these gross crimes could have been sufficient grounds to overturn the government in a normal state. It’s unclear how much of my speech reaches her, but she seems a bit hurt.  We change the subject. She presents recent signed photos for Larisa. Says she hopes to hold on for another couple of years. We exchange presents , give her a folding umbrella which pleases her especially and a digital watch.

Belokon’s gravely voice is even, steady. Her words are gentle, coming from another age. There is kindness and a certain elegance here. Only her revelations are rather empty. Despite herself, she is still terrorized by the shadow of Stalin.

At the door Belokon assures us that she will take care of herself and when she feels she no longer can do so, she will just die, she will not linger. We are deeply affected as we step out into the bright street.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

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