By Justin Lifflander
03 December 2015 (Izhevsk, UDMURT REPUBLIC) As my foot hit the platform, the mallet hit the orchestral base drum and the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s coronation march flowed through the train station’s loudspeakers into the ears of passengers arriving from Moscow.
“Did you arrange that serenade especially for me?” I asked my friend Yevgeny Odiyankov, who was there to greet me, along with his now grown-up son Sasha. The elfin twinkle in Zhenya’s eyes burned just as brightly as it had when I first met him 25 years earlier, only now framed by grey eyebrows.
“But of course, Comrade Ustin Matveevich,” he said. “Everything here is at the highest level of Party honor!”
As we headed to the car, I mulled the paradox of Tchaikovsky. Russia’s finest son, now an eternal brand of her culture and heritage, was of a non-traditional sexual persuasion. Contrast this to the country’s now infamous global reputation for rampant homophobia. For the most part, the reality is less dramatic. Russia is merely in a “don’t ask don’t tell” phase, as was the American Army at one time. That rule, by the way, was repealed by congress in September 2011. So Russia is only 4 years behind.
Izhevsk has blossomed since my last visit in 2008. The rebuilt St. Michael’s Cathedral is now complete, taking up a huge space in the city center. When the communists blew up the original structure in 1937 they intended to reuse the bricks in new building projects but they stuck together in chunks, as stubbornly as the orthodox faith did in the Russian soul.
The private outpatient clinic that Zhenya now runs advertises his long held philosophy: we will treat your spirit as well as your body and care for you as if you were our relative. It was that very spirit which forged the trusting relationship between the American INF inspectors and the cardiology center Zhenya used to lead. His colleagues’ ability to host a good party and his younger brother Yuri’s musical talents – which led to the first American-Soviet peace opera in 1990 – were also significant elements of the friendship.
My first lecture, titled “The Udmurt Prescription for Curing Problems of Global Cooperation” was SRO. In fact it was my largest audience yet: about 28 staff of the clinic crammed into a lounge less than that many square meters. There were veterans of the cardiology center present. They nodded in remembrance as I recounted Cold War history and Udmurtia’s role in it.
Let the Show Begin
Next I was transferred to the Ogloblin Club (named for either a speed skater or an insect specialist, I don’t know which). This was the venue for the semi-annual meeting of the International Club of Amateur High-Art Performances — the not so humble name for a humble group of non-professional musicians and singers. The club’s chairman is Yuri Odiyankov, who serves as impresario, arranger, and publicist. He also plays a mean harmonica, guitar and keyboard — though his demonic laugh is clearly in the bass range.
Yuri’s intellect and talent allow him to multitask at a herculean level. He can maniacally run his former surgeon’s fingers across the keyboard during rehearsal while simultaneously enlightening me on complex matters of philology, philosophy, politics and history.
I took a break from the process of enlightenment to chat with a Mr. Shatsky, whose inexplicable grin told me either he had already been in the bar for a long time or he knew something the rest of us didn’t. Shatsky appeared younger than his 60-something years. He readily revealed his recipe for a healthy and happy 2nd half-of-life: wear comfortable but expensive clothes, especially shoes that breathe; try to move your bowels at least 3 times a day; and during that process, regardless of the outcome, exercise your facial muscles by making a broad range of animal imitations. The final rule: never, never put your head directly under the shower stream. I took notes.
The Singing Babushkas gave Udmurtia a brief boost of benign fame, rivaling Tchaikovsky and nuclear missiles, thanks to their success in the 2012 Eurovision contest. But alas they were not on the night’s bill. Lesser known locals belted out classics like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and a smashing rendition of “The Night Chicago Died” — performed with better English pronunciation than I could ever offer. These pieces were interspersed with Russian classics like “Once in a Lifetime Meeting” and “Who told you?” A few of the performers should give up their day jobs.
Several original participants of the Doctors’ Opera joined for a reprise of “Hope.” I was then left alone on stage to perform an inappropriately mellow version of Nat King Cole’s classic “The Very Thought of You.” Having never sung with live musicians, I found myself looking frantically about for the bouncing ball or flashing words of the Karaoke screen but they were nowhere to be found. When the music stopped I greatly appreciated the polite applause from several members of the audience, after they regained consciousness.
With equal amounts of pride, shame and relief, I headed to the bar to reward myself for my effort.
“No sir, we don’t have a cognac called “White Stork,” said the barman. “Impossible,” I said. “In the Soviet days that fine Moldovan spirit used to arrive in rail tanker cars. Surely there must be some left over.” He shook his head and proceeded to warm the snifter (a service I’ve never received even in Manhattan’s finest bar!) while I contemplated the menu. I settled on something called Khenessi, which was not too shabby but lacked the iron aftertaste of that now extinct bird.
A live bird, an eagle owl (филин), flitted in the trees above as we drove through the woods after the show to the far end of the Izhevsk “pond,” where Zhenya’s dacha is located. There we dined on the seasonal delicacy of moose-meat pelmeni. I don’t know if the meat was available due to a predominance of good hunters or bad drivers. No, it does not taste like chicken. It has the slight tang of finely aged beef.
Friday at noon my books and I piled into Zhenya’s Audi, with Sasha behind the wheel, heading for ground zero: the Votkinsk History Museum. A burly lad, with crew cut and leather boots, I’m sure Sasha would have rather been driving me on his motorcycle. Since we are both men of few spoken words, this would have been fine with me, though I don’t know where we would have put the books. He managed the treacherous truck-clogged track with diligence and aplomb, his gaze sternly fixed ahead most of the time. I only noticed the odd side glance when we passed wooded areas. Perhaps he was scanning for suicidal moose.
To our mutual surprise, we arrived in the town that gave birth to Tchaikovsky in less than 40 minutes. According to the signage, the formerly 58 kilometer ride had shrunk by about 10 kilometers.
“How did that happen?” I asked Sasha.
“I think they straightened the road by filling in some of the dips,” he said. It was either a joke or a marvelous feat of engineering, but I didn’t voice any doubts. I was happy to be on time.
Votkinsk is the same but different. Predictably, the swans of the lake had been replaced by ice fishermen, who dotted the surface in some spots as densely as poppy seeds on a bun.
The promenade seemed more orderly. Indeed it had new paving bricks and lighting. But the billboards offering Kentucky Fried Chicken and consumer credit, the lovingly rebuilt Annunciation Cathedral and the occasional new façade confirmed this was not the same town I had been in almost a decade earlier.
The “hotel” at 20 Dzerzhinsky Street having reverted to private residences, I searched Trip Advisor in advance and found what looked a decent place to stay. Arrival at The Malakhit, on Sport Street, two blocks from the factory headquarters, was one of those “Isn’t capitalism wonderful” moments, when you experience service and quality because someone cares.
I made it to the museum where I was warmly greeted by deputy director Alla Pavlovna. She gave me a blitzkrieg tour of town (my style!) as we headed to the local radio station for an interview. Along the way she pointed to some of the log houses and their carved wooden window frames, for which the town is famous. I had never noticed the subtlety of the designs. “See the gear and triangle shape … a factory technician lived there; that next house…see the tassel — a theater worker or actor lived here…” A pleasant reminder of the value of being observant.
At the radio station – a room in the attic of a building off Lenin Street, with the end of the corridor walled off to form a recording booth — I learned that my interview would take up most of the 20 minutes that the central authorities allocate for daily local content. “Do you mind political questions?” the producer asked. I happily gave my view on geopolitical relations and Snowden.
The crowd of nearly 50 interested Votkintsy that had gathered at the museum to join me on my trip down memory lane included factory deputy director Valery Ledvanov, Department No. 162 employees Andrei Protopopov, Alexander Repko, Ludmila Shubina, “Mama” Nelly Pechatnova, Alevtina Mishchikhina, Nikolai the driver and even Kosmos Café waitress Irina Selezneva.
How to gather such a crowd you ask? A combination of the efforts of old friends: Olga Chernenko, daughter of the late construction colonel, Olga Yelesina, former 162 employee and nanny to Max, her niece Natalia, whose talented brother Andrei did an excellent job of promoting and then photographing the event… and new acquaintances, like Elena Pavlova and her husband Vladimir — friends of Chernenko and Ledvanov, and mother to Votkinsk’s leading florist, Irina. And of course there is word-of-mouth…in Russian aka “sarafanovi radio.” An interesting idiomatic expression: does it stem from the peasant woman’s sarafan dress? Is the implication that they chatter and exchange information while working the fields so attired?
My wife Alyona insisted I start my presentation with the admission that I would now reveal the full truth about myself, which the KGB had tried to extract via Department No. 162 escorts so many years ago. And I would tell it willingly and answer any and all questions. At this declaration the audience chuckled. Even the 3-letter boys in the back row grinned. Without their tacit support my presence would have been unthinkable.
And what a varied audience it was! From an 8 year-old to the 87 year-old factory veteran. Their passion for history and home-town pride was demonstrated not only by their attendance but also by their questions at the end of the presentation: When was I last in Votkinsk? What’s my opinion of the town now? What ever happened to…? The event ended with a blur of photo ops and book signing. But the message was well received: sometimes history should be repeated.
Justin Lifflander's Book Presentation of "How Not To Become A Spy"
To get to the group dinner at the Maestro restaurant, we had to go over the bridge on the north end of town. I was told, as we crossed, that it had disintegrated into the pond and left the town without electricity for several days one new year’s eve many years ago. But it held firm for us and we made it to the celebration, which was interrupted only once by a call from a frustrated fan wanting me to explain the illegible inscription I left in her book. I reassured her it must have been something nice, about passion, history, etc. After dinner I walked with Sasha Repko and his wife Irina to their apartment, located at Dzerzhinsky 20, the former hotel for inspectors. We stopped at the bust to the late factory director Sadovnikov and paid our respects.
Our nostalgic nightcap was attended by Sasha’s charming daughter Katya and a large white and grey furry cat appropriately named Arctic. The creature had a history of antagonism to guests (clearly not a native breed to Russia), but surprised its owners by quickly responding positively to my animal magnetism. I remembered my new friend throughout the rest of the trip as I plucked his hair from my sweater.
Having reached 3 a.m. and the bottom of the whiskey bottle, it was time to engage in the venerable Udmurt tradition of machinegun fondling. Repko produced his Saiga semi-automatic rifle, a civilian version of the AK-47. We posed and clicked away. I can’t recall if I checked in advance whether the magazine was full or empty.
I did learn that Sasha’s weapon is only one of 29 such guns allowed in private hands in Votkinsk. This would make for a per capita density of approximately 0.03%, far below the American prevalence of semi-automatic rifles, put conservatively at 1%. Another realm the US is far ahead of Russia. In any event, the human male’s fondness for gun-metal and explosions facilitates bonding across all cultures.
On Saturday morning Lenin waved goodbye from his pedestal as Sasha Odiyankov and I rolled across the dam and ontowards the town of Tchaikovsky. The founding father looked garishly incongruous standing in front of the rebuilt cathedral and its mini-version of the spire on St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress — which, by the way, was manufactured at the Votkinsk factory.
An hour later we approached the Kama reservoir, where the ships had been docked for winter and replaced on the horizon by ice fishermen, now dotting the surface in particularly high density on the section below the hydro-electric station’s dam.
A promotional poster bearing my face and memoir adorned the front door of the bookstore on Primorskom. Store owner Olga Sergeevna had kept her part of the bargain, warning readers I would be lurking amongst the stacks that afternoon.
I spent an hour discussing literature and life with local book enthusiasts, the most energetic of whom were Katya and her friend Anna. Katya, a journalism student with a fondness for Hemingway and Woody Allen, wanted my advice on how to become a writer. My wisdom was limited to the worn but accurate cliché: read, write and live. In exchange, I got tips on what to read to improve my Russian (Bulgakov’s Notes of a Young Doctor, and Grishkovets’s The Shirt). The innocent exuberance of youth is a fine antidote to the cynicism of middle age, and made the side-trip entirely worthwhile.
Tickled pink by the idea that I had signed a copy of my book for a future Akhmatova, Rubina or even Ayn Rand, I headed across the street for a mooseburger at the Tchaikovsky Restaurant.
After lunch we took a shortcut, driving directly from Tchaikovsky to Izhevsk. I again suspected that Sasha would have preferred us on a motorcycle…this time for practical reasons. He could easily have picked up a two wheeled vehicle and carried it on his shoulder over the several-hundred-meter section of unpaved pitted road. I’d have gladly trudged along behind, easily leaping over the ruts thanks to my lighter load. All 100 copies of my memoir that Vesmir Publishing had sent with me to Udmurtia had found new owners.
But 4-wheeled German engineering prevailed and we made it back to Izhevsk in time for my final presentation. Library No.23 is a little known avant-garde intellectual center run by Irina Almazova — one of those humble worker-bees who create the foundation of a healthy society. The world survives and its culture thrives on people like Irina who simultaneously invest in minds and souls.
Library No. 23 had all the signs of her quirkiness: a radiator and its piping painted to look like an industrial system; a puppet theater; readers favorite quotations, inscriptions and artwork adorning the walls; and a computer lab. As the diverse audience of 25 Izhevchanini listened to my babbling, one of her talented staff sketched a caricature of me with a far more dignified appearance than I deserve.
Indeed, as her last name implies, Irina Almazova is a diamond in the rough. To top off the event, one of the heads of the Izhevsk English Speakers Club, who hosted INF inspectors 27 years ago, was there to add her comments to my Q&A.
Having completed 3 days of public speaking in a foreign language, I retired again to the dacha at the far side of the lake. Despite the protein boost from another portion of moose-meat pelmeni, my intellectual strength faded as I sat between the Odiyankov brothers, receiving, in stereo, intensely delivered information about Pushkin’s literary treachery and linguistic brilliance, historical background on how the decline of the USSR began with Khrushchev, and some insider knowledge about Swan Lake as a form of mind control. My own language synapses fried, I have no recollection as to what happened next. But I was awake by 04:00, in time to depart for the airport.
As you head through the passport control at the nicely titivated Izhevsk airport, glance over your shoulder and enjoy your daily dose of paradox: the sign on the main gift kiosk (duty not free) proudly proclaims “Izhevsk, weapons capital of Russia.” You lament the inability to hand-carry the bullet paper weights, knife letter openers and model pistol lighters they offer. But look to the left and you’ll notice an inscription on the side of the nearby coffee stand: a quote by Mother Teresa, translated into Russian, extolling peace and humility. Go figure.
No music of any persuasion plays as you exit the waiting area for the bus to make the 7 a.m. flight — thank god! All pomp and circumstance is muted for the early departure. Even the local elite, either too cheap or too humble, don’t bother to buy business class seats. They join us in economy, but are readily identified by the handshakes, hugs and humble passing of business cards by those seeking a connection. And the humility is gone by the time we arrive at Domodedovo, where they are greeted by the VIP team and whisked away.
So there is big life in the small province, as my tale reveals. And there is no shortage of irony, as my last moments confirmed.
After a pleasant power-nap during the 2 hour flight, made possible by the considerate behavior of an infant in the row in front of me, I disembarked. To show my appreciation, I decided to offer to tote the mamashka’s hand-carry as we walked along the corridor of the airport toward baggage claim.
“Thank you so much,” said mamashka, handing me her bag.
And as I type this story, popping the last Sarapul chocolate in my mouth (chocolates in my house, inhabited by a mother-in-law who grew up in post-World War II destitution, have a life expectancy even shorter than that of an Udmurt moose), I swear with one hand on my heart and another on my dictionary (ergo, I am typing with my nose?), that the mamashka had no copy of my memoir visible anywhere on her person. But she added, using her now free hand to better cradle her baby, “Your Russian is so good, you must be a spy.”
I tried not to blush and changed the subject. Glancing at the now alert creature on her shoulder I said in that googoo voice which afflicts young grandfathers, “and what is your name, little one?”
Mamashka smiled and answered for her. “This is Alyona.”