Theatre in the Time of Cholera

Transitions №7

Author: Pavel Lembersky


The thing to keep in mind when you find yourself in your native land after a long stretch abroad is that you can’t help feeling a little freaked out most of the time. Think Odysseus back in Ithaca, only no faithful Argos to wag his tail upon getting a whiff of this traveler returned. Think Dostoyevsky’s count Myshkin manifesting a certain degree of estrangement back in Saint Petersburg after his stay on a Swiss funny farm. All the more reason to hide your confused ass in the theatre, my bodyguards Orlov and Decibel’s balking at covering the said ass while it did theatre notwithstanding. Drama or comedy, opera or ballet sure beat moshing the nights away in Manhattan, 2×2, Bunker, or then recently opened Pilot for catharsis any day any way. Except maybe on weekends. For it was weekend clubbing, from the get-go, that was business as usual for me, the search for my debtors Vik Z-sky and Co in Moscow hot clubs at the top of my agenda, casinos coming a close second. Hoping against hope for a blitzkrieg, I did start off with night clubs that also housed casinos. Two birds with one stone, as it were. Like the glitzier Metelitsa on New Arbat, a gambling house that I think I had heard Vik Z-sky mention casually back in New York. Reasoning that there’s an off-chance it might be the hustler’s hangout du jour, I commenced my quest there, closely observing the clientele dressed to the nines Moscow style but a budget traveler that I was, never succumbing to the gambling bug myself, a tall task what with the blindingly decollated shapely ladies in sheer stockings gyrating next to me as I watched the intoxicated crowd swarm around croupiers’ tables. Another observation post was my table for one partially obscured by a lavish ficus tree in the corner of the half-decent restaurant downstairs where I occasionally stayed for dinner, my bodyguards Orlov and Decibel planting their broad-shouldered selves at the next table. There, upon downing the requisite hundred grams quickly followed by pickled herring in sour cream sauce and a bite of beef-stroganoff, I also did a bit of dancing with friendly casino ladies. It rarely went further than that though on a number of occasions, I have to confess, it did. Listen, one is liable to feel lonely on his own in a strange place, okay? Better the refined me (such was my thinking as I paid for the intimate services rendered) than some skuzzball businessman from Boondocks, USA treated to the after-dinner entertainment by former Moscow mid-level party bosses who now owned this town. I also regularly tipped Oleg, the round-faced pug-nosed headwaiter in a starched shirt and minuscule black bowtie timidly peeking out from under his clean-shaved double chin. Oleg indicated though not in so many words, and upon my similarly roundabout query, that he did know Vik Z-sky, at least by sight, and so when the moment came, Oleg would be sure to cue me accordingly. Or rather, he’d point the man I was after, to Orlov and Decibel, whom I introduced to Oleg as my college buddies in town for some archery competition training. Don’t get me wrong, nothing outlandish was in the offing. No taking the law, or whatever passed for it in the post-Soviet Russia into my own hands. I wouldn’t know what to do with the handgun if my life depended on it. All I was trying to achieve was make sure that the IOUs that Vik Z-sky had handed to me over the two-vodka-gimlet lunch savored in New York’s Russian Tea Room next to the transparent polar bear with the bellyful of drowsy goldfishes were honored in full, forget the interest but do factor in travel and accommodation expenses, however negligible they might be in the larger scheme of things. Made sense and seemed fair though the moment of truth was slow in coming. So slow that upon hearing the truncated version of my tale of retributive justice in the making my new friend the street-smart punk princess Tasha Tschelicheva of the asymmetrical cut and pierced everything, suggested that I write off the small fortune I got swindled out of as one lamentable loss, pack up my bags and head the hell back where I came from in a jiffy – much safer that way – though she personally would miss me quite a bit because I was kinda cute and sorta fun. Quote unquote.

I bumped into Tasha Tschelicheva in a Stalin-era House of Culture recently converted into The Shudder of Recognition, an exclusive night club with a killer sound system and the clientele to match. While TSR’s occasional live Brit electronica imports typically left the patrons gasping for air, the domestic and euro pop fare overlaid with industrial music never failed to get them up and boogie, often till the wee hours. During the large portion of the night in question Tasha, a petite golden-haired young woman with a shiner under her left eye, was busy pirouetting around the tables, guzzling drinks abandoned by the revelers shaking their booties on the dance floor to Ace of Base’s ubiquitous “All That She Wants.” From time to time the dancers waved exaggerated hellos to the non-dancers lurking in the dark recesses of the club, then shuffled over to them across the floor swaying and twisting grotesquely only to bring their friends into the spotlight, put their arms around them and resume twirling and bopping. Joviality ruled, leather outfits held sway, cocktail waitresses were obliging and civilized to a fault. Next to service industry elsewhere in town, the personnel carried on like they graduated top schools of hospitality in London or Paris before landing a job in The Shudder of Recognition. All of a sudden Tasha stopped mid pas, waltzed right up to my table and hit me with a mix of studied nonchalance and understated disdain, “Kurt Vonnegut has just offed himself. Tragic, no?”. Of course, she actually meant Kurt Cobain, whom I knew next to nothing about at the time, which happened to be roughly the extent of Tasha’s familiarity with Vonnegut’s status or body of work but the apparent disconnect mattered little: we hit it off swimmingly that night. She looked vaguely familiar too. And I don’t just mean her uncanny resemblance to the young Tatiana Doronina, a movie actress I had a mild crush on back in the ninth grade. She also looked like someone I thought I had spotted at The Tarantula’s gig in Bunker a week earlier. Could she have been that girl jumping up and down in the back of the thinnish crowd every time the Saint Petersburg neo-punk outfit’s frontman in tall lace-up boots got on his knees and tried to lick the purposefully spilled mango juice off the stage floor? Bunker was clearly a much cooler venue than the places I normally patronized in search of Vik Z-sky and Co and though bumping into them in Bunker would have been like finding a bunch of albino elephants in the refrigerator, it’s just that every now and then I felt the urge to chill someplace half appealing.

Anyhow, it was Tasha’s idea to do some theatre really soon — she indicated as much while slipping a piece of napkin with her phone number scribbled on it as we were leaving the club an hour later. So theatre we did aplenty, everything else falling into its proper place in no time, too.

Not sure how she got on the subject of bears that night at TSR but she did. But first I asked her if she thought drinking from strangers’ glassware was sanitarily sound.

“Sanitarily my ass,” Tasha hunched her shoulders. “Everyone smokes hash here anyway. The drinks are just for show, barely touched.” How did she know? “Observation.” Tasha gave me a wink. “Look, dude, they dance like bears, clumsy and graceless. That’s hash-bear moves for you. So Moscow is crawling with bears,” she chuckled. “You foreigners are onto something after all. Only they are the club-crawling kind.”

“Listen,” I smiled. “I’m not a total foreigner, lady. I know my bears.”

“Even better,” said Tasha. “That’s our bear connection right there, America.”

Then she gave me this whole rambling spiel about her first toy ever. It featured, wouldn’t I know it, a bear. Namely, something like a two-dimensional gray plastic contraption made up of a boxer and a bear, the latter on his hind legs, both with a pair of miniature boxing gloves on. The lever attached to the contraption allowed you to simulate the boxing match though the gloves of the two opponents could barely touch, so the advantage of one fighter over the other was arbitrary and solely in the eye of the prepubescent beholder Tasha. You could say the fighters were locked in a permanent draw, she added. Even if one didn’t know much about the culture behind the national toy industry, it’d be reasonable to suppose that it accorded above average esteem both to its sportsmen and the clubfooted denizens of the woods in equal measure. Fact is, bears were way up there on the totemic pole. Maybe even higher than football players, hockey players, figure skaters or indeed, boxers. The toy was the size of an adult’s hand. The entire culture at your fingertips. Broken in two at some point just to see if boxing was a sport you could do without a partner. “Nope. Takes two to get a fat lip. Or a black eye, whatever the case may be,” Tasha concluded touching her shiner gingerly. “A lesson learned early on.”

“What happened?” I said.

“Mother. Damn her and her booze. Things got out of hand the other day.”

“Sorry to hear. Seems out of place on this pretty face,” I pointed to her black eye.

“Face, place. What, you a poet, America?”

“Nah, not me. A beginner globetrotter at best. Your story does sound like a prose poem though. Very cute.” I gushed. “‘The Boxer and the Bear.’ Just like the storyteller, cuter than cute.” I put my hand on Tasha’s beat-up leather jacket sleeve and gave it a light squeeze. It is worth noting at this point that my flirting technique, below par to begin with, gets a little bear-like when I’m inebriated. For a fuller picture keep in mind the two pairs of watchful eyes of my bodyguards Orlov and Decibel trained on us from across the room throughout the entire fun night at TSR. You try flirting under close surveillance, see how far you get.

“You married?” asked Tasha out of the blue as she slid her arm away from me.

“Divorced. No children. No regrets. Why?”

“Liar,” said Tasha. “No such thing as no regrets. I don’t care what Edith Piaf croons on the subject. What was she like?”

“Why? We just met, lady.”

“C’mon, dish. What you hiding in that conjugal closet, America?”

“Nothing. Not a bone. One thing I will say. What she liked to say before we’d get cozy was, “Hey bear. Let’s roar and scare the hare.” I swear. Sort of a mating call with her.”

Tasha threw her head back, let out a howl, clapped her hands loudly, then grabbed my drink and finished it in one noisy gulp. Then she moved a little closer.   

 “I like that! Hey bear… Poetry, I don’t care what you say!”

“But,” I continued staring into her enormous dark eyes. “Funny thing, I have a bear story for you, too. Just like yours only real. Wanna hear it?”

“What do you mean only real? Mine was real too!”

“I mean, mine is not a toy story.”

“Shoot,” she said, moving a little closer and propping her chin on her hands like a good schoolgirl in her Ruslit class would, only with an impish facial exaggeration complete with brief pouting and eye-blinking. Even the music subsided for a bit so I didn’t have to raise my voice much. I put my hand on her sleeve again. She didn’t move it away this time.

“Are you married?”

“Widowed,” she said casually.

“What?! Aren’t you, ah, a little too young for that?”

“Accident on a job, whatcha gonna do? Contract job, to be exact. Welcome to Moscow, America. What’s your story, anyway?” 

“Ah, okay… But let’s order drinks first. What’s your non-leftover poison?”

“Gin and tonic. And let’s don’t rub the left-over business in. I’m a budget club kid, you have a problem with that?”

 So I flagged down the rail-thin waitress in a leather mini, ordered two Tanqueray gin and tonics, cleared my throat and began.

 “I don’t know if it’s me, Tasha, — can I call you Tasha? — or the Big Dipper working her astral magic up above but I never seemed to get the four-legged dude out of sight for long no matter where I roamed, and roam I did far and wide over the past fifteen years. Yes, m’am, roam I sure did. His grizzly second cousin loomed large as the beast of honor gracing the state flag in California atop every other building, the furry creature looking more hunched than his real-life counterpart due to the rippling effect, no doubt. And speaking of totem poles, even on our first honeymoon trip south of border, my ex and I bore witness to a bizarre scene, which revolved around an open-air circus act of sorts, namely, boxing. Talk about serendipity.  Don’t know what that word means either. Just heard it used whenever similar things happen to different people. Maybe that’s precisely what it means.

“Anyhow, here’s the tale in its entirety,” I continued. “Up until then I’d been under the impression that kangaroos were the only mammals on God’s green Earth who manifested a verifiable interest in boxing. Boy, was I wrong! At a crowded mid-May fair on a windy Saturday afternoon someplace Michoacan, my ex and I watched a 30 ft pole being hoisted in the middle of the village square, a pair of boxing gloves hanging from the hook atop the pole, and shortly after the midsize bear starting to make her climb up the pole in order to reach the gloves by all appearances coveted both by the crowd of onlookers and herself. Unless they were dipped in honey prior to the spectacle for extra olfactory appeal to the animal. The bear was roaring with delight because the wooden pole covered with lard so as to make the climb more challenging, was, in fact, stimulating her inadvertently by rubbing her inner thighs as she finally reached the top of the pole and snatched the pair of prized gloves off the hook with her fangs. Then the boxing match ensued as the final bets were being placed either on the she-bear or on her mustachioed hunchbacked ringmaster in dirt-covered cowboy boots with little copper spurs that made barely audible ringing sounds as they touched the ground. All I can say is the obvious: I wish I had my camera with me. I left it back in the adobe hut that my ex and I were staying at. Some honeymoon. Your basic student version, no frills but tons of thrills. I say I wish I had my camera with me because in the third round the hunchback won a convincing victory over the bear, by knocking her down and kicking her in the belly with his pointy boot as she was lying prostrate on the ground whining pathetically, though the last touch, or rather, the last kick seemed both cruel and unwarranted. For a brief moment and in view of the attention lavished upon the ursine fighter, it seemed that my ex and I were watching a circus number performed someplace Moscow or Odesa as opposed to ogling the ill-kempt bear clearly trained to take a fall for that extra serving of after-match honey in the Mexican village square on a lazy Saturday afternoon. After the match was over the ringmaster passed round his sombrero and, I believe, made out like a bandit which I think he was anyway.

“And that is,” I concluded in a mock-solemn tone of voice, “but one example of the universal appeal of bears as entertainers, the fodder for mythology, our four-legged friends in need and even the occasional providers. And we haven’t even touched upon the likable Misha the Bear, the mascot of Moscow 1980 Olympics who failed to impress half the globe into lifting the boycott off the event, despite his benevolent smile and his Micky Mouse ears.”

“Friends in need and providers my ass. What a waste of time: trying to win the love of half the globe that doesn’t give a fuck about you anyway. Never did,” Tasha frowned, then changed her tune. “But hey, that’s quite a story. Kinda gives my 2D toy contraption a real-life dimension. Talk about weird honeymoons. Which brings us back to your ex. What happened? C’mon, dish already,” and by way of encouragement, she gave me a light punch in the stomach with her clenched fist as we were blowing The Shudder of Recognition a quarter of an hour later. Light but it smarted. That’s how she turned out to be: flippant, temperamental but ultimately reasonable and well-meaning.   

“Why are the young winsome ladies so curious about the exes of newly-met men a generation older is a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” I wondered out loud as we entered the metro station where I tried to feed the turnstile I remembered from childhood, only the feed I fumbled for in my pockets went up about six hundred times since.

“I’m twenty-five,” said Tasha. “And you sure don’t look anywhere near forty, America. So who’s a generation older? And who were the two fellas that kept staring at us from across the room? You know, the ones you had a word with on your way to take a piss? Just curious.”

“Some people I know. Why?” I answered marveling at my new friend’s power of observation for I indeed had to stop by Orlov and Decibel’s table and instruct them to make themselves scarce and allow for some privacy before we left the club.

“Not Koroviev and Azazello, by any stretch?” she queried.

“Not a chance. What would that make me? Woland the Prince of Darkness himself?” I mused.

“Nah. Way too cheerful and chatty. Unless the whole thing was cast against type this time around.”

I must confess I had no idea what she was gabbing about. One thing was clear: there was yet another connection between us: The Master and Margarita,  Bulgakov’s biggie that acquired a cult status over decades since its long-delayed publication in the late ‘60s. Even my first unremarkable dining experience in Moscow took place in a tiny dimly-lit pizza parlor Chez Margarita in the Patriarch Ponds.

“Too cheerful? Cast against what type?”

“Later, America,” chortled Tasha. “This is me. Call me, okay? What do you think of the avant-garde theatre anyway? Yes, no, maybe, don’t give a hoot? Ever heard of Pogrebnichko?”

And before I had the time to respond to her rapid-fire multiple-choice query, she gave me a big fat kiss on the lips and bolted out of the train at the Smolenskaya station.




Over the next week, in between theater-going, club-hopping and lovemaking at my Kuntsevo digs I was slowly filling Tasha in on the reason why I came to Moscow. Doing it in toto and right away didn’t seem wise: the whole matter was way too important, too sensitive and not entirely legit as far as I could tell. At first though, I tried twisting the truth a bit, coming up with all kinds of stories of varying probability and veracity: a research for a video project (“really? so where’s your camera, dude?”) a series of articles for The Village Voice (“I don’t see you take any notes, ever. Who do you take me for, America? A village idiot?”), a search for a companion because I just couldn’t see myself with an American woman (“planning to look much further, mister?”). Then, after we’ve been together for a week or so, I figured my punk princess was a decent girl with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, and I could confide in her unreservedly. So finally, without naming too many names, I gave her the entire story: getting hired by Vik Z-sky and Co back in New York, assisting them in acquiring 200 caddies for the nascent Russian market, getting swindled by them out of a small fortune in liaison fees, coming to Moscow to settle the score, etc. I also had to come up with some sort of explanation regarding the 24/7 attention bestowed upon me by my trusty, if somewhat sluggish bodyguards Orlov and Decibel, the former also doubling as my personal driver, at least when his “shesterka” beater wasn’t hoisted up on the hydraulic lift in one of Chertanovo body shops not too far from his five-storied “khrustcheba” apartment building.

Tasha’s initial reaction was emphatically negative to the point of her calling me insane and plain stupid for trying to take on the Russian mafia on their own turf (for this is exactly who Vik Z-sky and Co were in Tasha’s view) but by degrees she warmed up to the idea of recovering the money by hook or by crook and finally gave in. She also sensed that by hanging out with me in public she put herself in a precarious position as well, a fact that didn’t necessarily faze her, just made her more selective with regard to the places we frequented together. Also, as she put it, the whole “crime and punishment” dimension of my quest added a pinch of spice to our budding relationship thus making it more titillating for her personally. Whatever. Not to mention that she was something of a streetwise kid, a child of the roaring ‘90s who lived through the putsch of August ’91, and then there was also that violent demise of her husband that she mentioned the night we met at TSR club. Plus coming from an old – but more to the point, new – believers’ stock (devout Christian grandparents, hard core commie parents), she wouldn’t be averse to seeing justice served on the bad guys by any means deemed necessary.

Her nomenklatura dad left the family (actually, abandoned little Tasha in a public place one foggy December afternoon and vanished without a trace, what a piece of shit scumbag!) when she was a third grader, so she was raised by her abusive boozer mother and her second uncle Foma Alexandrovich who, it so happened, was a dead ringer for Leon Trotsky: the cap, the goatee, the pence-nez, the argumentative puissance. Not much to put on a resume, you would think. But as a mirror image of the fiery Red Army commissar, he did sit once for Diego Riviera’s celebrated The Fourth International mural and as such got to hold the banner right next to Marx and Engels for hours on end, or rather next to the local bearded peasant passably impersonating the two founding fathers of Marxism alternately, and therefore getting paid double for the sessions: fair is fair. The real Trotsky, very much alive at the time, had to go into hiding that week: the rumors of his hired assassin at large were getting too real to be dismissed outright. The family lore remained reticent on what it was exactly that Foma Alexandrovich, a real life Red Army brigade commander who received a contusion on the Southern Front during the Civil War, was doing in Mexico City in the late ‘30s. Be that as it may, Tasha and her bedridden and rarely sober mother Maria Vassilievna, never in a million years, however pressed for cash, would consider selling the charcoal sketches from the prewar sessions that Diego Riviera brought as a present for his old pal Foma Alexandrovich on the artist’s trip to Moscow in 1956 shortly before leaving this world for the greater and presumably more socially equal beyond. Whenever I’d stay the night at Tasha’s in Starokoniushenny (“Come on over, America, and pump my ass like you mean it. It’s been two long days. I may be a princess all right, but I sure ain’t no nun”), she’d mix an extra dose of sleeping powder in the alcohol detox drink that her mother was supposed to take before going to sleep, so that my honey and I could do whatever we pleased without the slightest regard for the attendant sounds of lovemaking punctuated by the headboard thumping against the wallpapered wall. My punk princess was noisily expansive in bed and her customary biting the pillow’s corner for the muffling effect didn’t always do the trick. In fact, that technique was fraught with nasty side effects: she almost gagged on goose feathers once, or maybe pretended she did, audibly coughing them up and spitting them out onto the kitchen linoleum floor the morning after, thereby startling her old black cat Behemoth. My little Doronina was a bit of an actress in her own right.




I suppose it wouldn’t be a great challenge to figure what Tasha and I did in our down time in the weeks that followed, that is, when I wasn’t trying to track down Vik Z-sky and Co in Moscow hot spots and she had her nights off from the Arbat antique shop that employed her as a salesgirl. You can’t avoid doing theatre while residing, however temporarily, in the theatre capital of the known universe. Theatre is what you do to reclaim your sanity, find your bearings, transcend or lose yourself, trace back your steps to the carefree days of your childhood, contract and contain the Artaudian contagion in the span of two and a half hours, or simply pass the time, especially when the everyday street theatre around you becomes too much to bear. For street theatre is precisely what the new reality of your homeland looks to you after you spend almost half of your lifetime elsewhere. And so, as an antidote to heart-rending encounters with the frazzled tent dwellers camping under the starry skies between the Red Square and Rossiya Hotel, their grievances scribbled on pieces of cardboard pasted to their scraggly fur hats; or high school teachers in threadbare coats selling shivering puppies in Novy Arbat pedestrian underpasses; or every other small establishment from shoe repair places to flower shops converted to hard currency exchanges with the obligatory pair of semiautomatic-wielding special force policemen guarding their entrances (a source of endless consternation to Moscow senior citizens), you develop a strong interest in the Russian and Soviet classics in bold new interpretations, or better yet, in reverentially faithful traditional adaptations, if only to avert your eyes from the sights unfamiliar and unnerving. You feel the need to get to know the new exciting stars of the stage or check out how the old ones held up. Catharsis galore, dramatic justice served unfailingly, the fallen hero dies a beautiful death in the breathtaking finale only to get back on his feet and take a bow seconds later, hands pressed to his cranberry juice besmeared shirt. Theatre, theatre, theatre as an instrument of buoying your spirits or alleviating distress. Not always effective, truth be told. The aesthetics of the society in a state of flux can be vexing in its own right. Take the Moscow Theatre for the Young Audience’s interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground featuring the office clerk narrator, his endless monologue accentuated by the consummation of large quantities of food intermittently regurgitated and spat out into his cupped hands, all the while addressing the fleshy taciturn harlot lying buck naked on the brass bed next to him. No one has yet called me a prude but I must say that wall-to-wall nudity in Oh! Calcutta! seen on Broadway back in the day seemed a whole lot less disconcerting than this jizzed up take on the venerable classic… The venues were sometimes confusing, too. Like the eight-hour Aeschylus’ gorefest Oresteia directed by Peter Stein. The German maverick’s three-part play of vengeance and revenge took me aback right away: was the huge bas-relief red star up on the Moscow Soviet Army theatre ceiling draped over by the white cloth for reasons of thespian expediency? Or, it being the early ‘90s, the gesture had something to do with domestic political changes in the air? Maybe both? It took the constitutional crisis that I lived through in the early days of October to help wrap my mind around the simple and irrefutable fact: red stars and what they stood for never really vanished from Moscow interiors, public or private, mental or physical, symbolic or real.


“I’ve boarded a boat but the little boat, it was made out of yesterday’s paper,” the blonde beehived beauty crooned throatily to her own guitar accompaniment in the popular black and white movie of my adolescence. Tatiana Doronina!.. The very same actress that now, twenty years later, I was literally falling all over myself running down Tverskoy Blvd. to see in the theatre she reigned over for years as its artistic director and star. Almost felt like a date. A Platonic date with my past, at any rate. Goes some ways to explaining why I didn’t even bother asking Tasha if she cared to join, not that she would: she had to work her shift at the antique store that day.

Chasing the past though, as it was slowly dawning on me during my stay in Moscow, rates highly on the scale of futile human pursuits, perhaps a notch below the efforts to bring back the dead. Unless you are vested with a set of supernatural powers, or acquired the requisite professional skills. Exhuming the corpse, beautifying it expertly as you stare into empty sockets of the half-decomposed face before dusting off its prominent cheekbones with the camel hair brush then carefully applying makeup, holding your nose, hoping against hope for eye contact or a trace of a smile. What contact, what smile? One has to be seriously delusional and disillusioned by the present to travel down that road. Not this voyager. This voyager was reasonably happy with his IT job in a major New York City insurance company, inasmuch as it allowed him to keep a nice one-bedroom place midtown, a stone’s throw from Central Park, enjoy a weekly meal or two out, and to take an occasional vacation in Europe or South America with or without a lady friend. Who could ask for more? Apparently, I could. Because I did. And I don’t believe I need to further elaborate why I chose to get involved with Vik Z-sky and Co back in New York. Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with trying to make an extra buck in a market economy. Or making sure you collect your pay in an unregulated economy that held sway over the land of perestroika and acceleration. Acceleration of what precisely, by the way? The number of empty shelves in department stores? The hordes of old ladies re-selling salami and toilet paper off of Tverskaya St. sidewalks? Or the frequency of shootouts between rivaling gangs? Need I remind myself over and over that I was in Moscow not to chase the days long gone but to take care of unfinished business, preferably peaceably and conclusively, and that was the long of it and the short of it?

Dry poplar leaves were dancing their weird sisters’ dance along Tverskoy Blvd. on that chilly evening in early October. And the air seemed even colder on my scurried way back from the theatre. The difference the two hours at Moscow autumnal sunset make… As for the play, it also had all the makings of a reheated soufflé, cold and clunky, possibly one of the more insufferable productions I had seen so far. Tatiana Doronina, the actress I used to have a mild crush on back when she was trying to sail that flimsy boat in the song from the movie, now twenty years older and many a pound heavier, was starring in Bulgakov’s Zoyka’s Apartment, a 1920s play that didn’t age gracefully either. In my mind’s eye I could still see Doronina’s more delicate and winsome incarnation as Dulcinea in Man of La Manhca a long time ago and far away when the Mayakovsky theatre company came to my hometown the year I graduated high school. After the performance, for reasons I still find difficult to explain, I thought it an excellent idea to follow her and a group of actors, including the tall guy who took turns playing Don Quixote and Cervantes in Mitch Leigh’s musical, possibly the first American import of its kind to the Soviet stage, the very same tall-dark-and-handsome actor who played opposite Doronina in the movie One More Time About Love, where she sang about the boat that never sailed and at the very end died in a plane crash. A sad sad story. Or maybe the boat did sail, but certainly not with her aboard it. The song wasn’t clear on that. And so, that balmy night in June, I walked behind the knight of the sad countenance, and the sweet lady del Tobosco with the actor who played the portly Sancho by their side, down Pasteur street in the dark, past the clinic where my mom worked as a cardiologist, past the barbershop where uncle Misha the barber would give me nice cuts and always praise the shape of my head to high heaven (“the ideal skull,” he called it), then I followed the actors as they traversed the Soviet Army Square, all the way to the hotel, way past ten pm, crossing the street over to the opposite side whenever the group would pause at the intersection and wait for the lights to change. Then surreptitiously crossing back to their side of the street. What was my aim exactly? No aim. Just silently shadowing my heroes all the way to their hotel on Primorsky Blvd., slowly, slowly in the soft summer night. Until finally they reached the hotel and were swallowed up by the massive revolving door never to appear again…

What I had to deal with now, twenty years later, was trying to get Zoyka’s stale aftertaste out of my system, and her apartment to boot, very traditional, uninspired and insipid production, the entire affair highlighting the lameness of the situation I found myself in: on my own in a strange place, grasping on Tasha like she was my lifesaver, hunting my debtors with no leads to go by in a city of 8 million people plus countless out-of-towners visiting the capital etc., etc. And as I was walking down the boulevard shuffling my feet through the autumnal leaves, just like I liked to hear them rustle as a kid on my way to school, and still liking it now, on my way back from the play that I chose to walk out of during the intermission, I was thinking how most things you used to like back in the day more often than not didn’t do much for you anymore. And, as I was walking down Tverskoy Blvd., chilled to the bone, I was thinking, if this was, in fact, the turn things were taking, what would the fount of joy look like for me twenty years down the road, what would those pockets of positivity be, would they be empty, or half-full, if the past clearly ain’t where it’s at, would it be Hollywood’s chewing gum for the eyes in one pocket and a paycheck from an okay but not overly exciting job in the other pocket, and are we talking gold pieces or loose change and some lint, and would 200k I got swindled out of, if recovered, ultimately make that much difference in the overall scheme of things, the things that have a way of turning their bony backside to you with the passing of time, and if that is all there is, an old lady shuffles up to me, obviously a part of what they still referred to as “the old Russian intelligentsia,” and the old lady asks me out of nowhere, “Did you hear the ‘rat-ata-ta-tat’ in the distance, young man? What’s that? And the truck full of soldiers that drove by just now? Did you see that?” And I say to her, “Nope, didn’t see the truck, but whatever that sound was, it wasn’t the shooting, not just yet, not to worry, lady.” Like I ever witnessed any military action in my entire life, like I knew what the gunfire in the big city’s autumnal air at dusk might sound like. Because that was precisely what it was.




Thinking back on that momentous night, it seems bizarre how the gunshots in the distance sounded like an extension, however implausible, of the play I walked out of at the New Moscow Art Theatre. But then, did not traveling to distant places often carry with it the make-believe aura of histrionics? Didn’t the sounds of a foreign language whispered at the next table in a Copenhagen coffee house for no apparent reason hint at a promise of mystery, magic, seduction even? Though the main thrust of the chitchat most likely didn’t stray far from any coffee shop conversation downtown Manhattan: boyfriend trouble, landlord disputes, office ennui? Granted, the sights and sounds of your home country quickly congeal into familiar words and easily interpretable signs but the context, after a long absence, could always use a bit of fine-tuning. Were they being habitually rude to me last week in the dairy section line at my local Kuntsevo gastronom? Or just unnecessarily snarky? Personal space still an ill-defined concept in post-Soviet Russia, it did hurt for real when a big-boned lady in her late forties blatantly trespassed it by stepping on my shoe and just kept pressing on it defiantly for fifteen excruciating seconds till the tears began swelling in my eyes. And the absurdity of her forgoing an apology and cussing me out instead thus turning the whole incident into a farce…

So where were those soldiers scuttling to? Were they perhaps just a bunch of extras and if so, what tree were the Mosfilm helmer and his trusty DP hiding in? Then, as the days passed by, unfamiliar pieces gradually began to make up the gruesome puzzle. Blood spilled and casualties untold started to feel all too real. Ditto the tanks shelling the Parliament (aka the Russian White House) in grave and weighty support of president Yeltsin’s Decree aimed at dissolving the Congress which quickly retaliated by a move to oust Yeltsin. Russians shooting at fellow Russians for the first time since when? The Civil War? Or Stalin’s purges? Windows rattling in Tasha’s Old Arbat apartment scaring the bejesus out of her mother and Behemoth, a mere five blocks from the scene of the stand-off. A sniper lodged behind the Aeroflot globe emblem atop the restaurant at the intersection of New Arbat and Smolenskaya. TV and telephone service dead for days. Tasha’s erring on the dramatic side calling the state of emergency a revolution but then, what do you call a situation wherein military units storm the government building on presidential orders while the vice-president, in a countermove, initiates the attack on the Ostankino TV tower, numerous fisticuffs erupt all over the city center, a curfew gets imposed until further notice, or groups of men in uniform flag down Orlov and Decibel’s “shesterka” to random check our papers, the muzzles of their guns sticking in our faces through the car windows? I favored the more level-headed definition I heard on the BBC, incidentally, one of the two foreign channels that continued TV broadcasts throughout the turmoil, the other being CNN. The BBC called the confrontation coup d’etat, eventually toning it down to “the constitutional crisis.” Or maybe I was just more comfortable with the Western media after getting a taste of Moscow newspapers of the day: variegated, contradictory, often lewd or sensational, certainly a qualitative and quantitative leap from the informational paucity of Pravda and Izvestia of the Soviet era but, barring a few exceptions, confusing and speculative. Plus, the one or two Russian TV channels that did continue to work during those crazy days, for one reason or another, highlighted the ultranationalist party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the notorious clown-politician who peppered his incendiary speeches with the guarantees of all sorts, including the more liberal attitude towards such sexual practices as masturbation. (“Ura!!” shrieked Tasha and myself in excited unison when we heard the promise of the new freedom and proceeded to jump up and down the sofa with the gaiety of 5-year-olds, her face remaining somber, while I managed to put some mock-pep in my reaction). Be that as it may, the armed conflict was a first for me, no matter what you called it. Every once in a while I couldn’t help thinking of it as the near-death convulsions of the last empire under the sun though never voicing that insight so as not to rub the concerned citizen Tasha the wrong way. All in all, Tasha who witnessed the bloodshed of the first coup in August 1991, was clearly better equipped to handle the free-for-all of early October, yet once or twice she betrayed signs of genuine distress as the crisis unfolded. For one, she, an on-again off-again smoker, now went through a pack a day, despite her mother screaming her head off in the next room admonishing Tasha to stop stinking up the apartment and ruining her health siu je minutu! Dunhill, Dunhill light, Dunhill menthol, Kent, Marlboro light, Virginia Slims, Sobranie, mostly knock-offs, all went for roughly a dollar a pack, so she would just grab the first thing that stared at her between the jars of plastic black caviar, bottles of diesel-cut Absolut vodka and rubber male genitalia from commercial kiosks windows that mushroomed around the city over the past two years.

After a week or so, the coup conclusively squashed by Yeltsin, things slowly started going back to normal. To the point when I was finally able to venture outside or even brave an occasional trip to the Central market, now entirely void of locals, a stray hard-currency loaded foreigner trying his broken Russian on vendors who, for some reason, resembled college teachers more than ever. Wait. Are we back to street theatrics all over again? Why then a young round-cheeked ethnic Russian tangerine seller, a lock of blond hair hanging down from under her headscarf, is affecting a Georgian accent? Is she being funny in a self-deprecating manner, playing the part imposed on her by her vitamin C-enriched produce, citrus plants traditionally grown in the republic of Georgia? Don’t ask this confused count Myshkin out to get some veggies, farmer’s cheese and honey in honeycombs for his girl and her ailing mom awaiting him in their Arbat apartment. Though I must say I did feel a palpable antipathy emanating from Maria Vassilievna from the get-go, she didn’t seem to mind my staying the nights at their place throughout the crisis. An avid though rarely sober reader, now on her Latin American kick, she took to referring to my relationship with her daughter as Love in the Time of Cholera which I thought was accurate and funny enough though I never actually read the Márquez’ book, just knew it by the title. Yet I politely chuckled every time the foul-mouthed ex-basketball coach ex-Komsomol leader hooch hound pointed her cane at us and howled hysterically from her bed, “Love in the time of Cholera! Love in the time of fucking Cholera!” Do check out the book when and if you get back to New York was a mental note I remember making as Tasha and I sat on the sofa in front of the TV in the living room holding hands and watching the black smoke wafting up from the charred façade of the Russian White House.   

The constitutional crisis, playing out five blocks from us, was being televised.



An excerpt from the novel 200 Brand New Shiny Cadillacs


© paul lembersky 2022