Wednesday, January 13, 2010

38. The Great Terror

The citizens of Moscow lay in their beds, waiting, as the dark minutes crept by. They had long since stopped sleeping – almost nobody in the city really slept anymore – but even so, husbands lay beside wives feigning slumber; sisters and brothers measured their breaths and stilled their bodies. In a city like this any display of distress, even to those closest to you, was a reason for suspicion, an admission of guilt. The people who showed weakness were the ones sacrificed first, the ones pushed out by the others so the others could live. Because every night without fail, someone else would be taken. They all heard the hum of the engine, the slamming of the door, the footsteps on the stairs, but still they pretended. We have done nothing and are not afraid, they told the hand that nightly plucked their neighbors from their beds like chocolates from a box. We are innocent, sleeping, invisible. Pass us by.

Some of the people in the city, usually higher-ups in the government who knew how capriciously arbitrary this hand in fact was, stopped pretending, and this gave them a measure of comfort. One of these men, a general in the Army, packed a small suitcase so he’d be ready when they came for him, then sat on his balcony for the three days that it took them to arrive, drinking wine and enjoying the weather. Another man, a minister of an important department, kept his loaded pistol next to his bed. He understood the inexorableness of what was happening, the futility of arguing. He understood that in times like these, pulling the trigger yourself was the only freedom you had.

The bureaucrats who were being consumed by the system they had helped create were the smart ones. They knew that the difference between life and death for thousands of people was, literally, the position of their name on a page in a phone book. The mayors of towns in every nook and cranny of the empire, from Leningrad to Vladivostok, had been given a monthly quota to fill. The directive would arrive on the first of each month, signed by Stalin himself. 130,000 cancers to be excised from the body of the city this time, 150,000 the next. The local Soviets hoped that by offering others up to the ravenous state, they themselves would be spared. The idea was not just to meet, but to exceed, the numbers. The blood on their hands was the badge of their loyalty.

In the early years of the Terror, there were rules. Insane, mad rules, but rules nonetheless. Everyone knew that Igor disappeared because he was the first to stop clapping after the speech by the local party boss. So, they reminded themselves, keep clapping. Be the loudest singer, the most passionate shouter, the quickest cap-doffer, and perhaps it will not be your turn tonight. Everyone knew that it was Yelena’s nice apartment and the covetousness of her neighbors that sealed her fate. So, they said, don’t have anything that anyone else might want. But now, as Stalin’s paranoia increased and his appetite grew and grew, there was finally no pretense of cause and effect. You could be, and would be, arrested for anything. For nothing. The leaders of the towns and cities would close their eyes and pick names at random out of the telephone directory. The Ivanovs, at 152 Sandy Lane. The whole family, gone.

If the people had known how truly arbitrary Stalin’s Terror was, how very little they had to lose, would things have been different? Surely the people, realizing that for all practical purposes they were already dead, would have risen up in protest? But history has shown us again and again that it is impossible for most people to understand this, to believe that their entire existence is as meaningful and ephemeral as dew on grass. It must be something we – or someone else -- has done, they say, when faced with calamity. It was the Jews poisoning the wells, the congregation not praying fervently enough, the debauchery of the city, my own lack of devotion to the cause. We’ll fix it, they thought, we’ll do this or not do that, and you’ll see. And this is the essence of the Terror, finally; this faulty belief of yours that makes you human and refuses you any solace or rest. The belief that somehow, you control what happens to you.

I lay in my own bed in the suburbs of Moscow in the middle of another sleepless night, learning this lesson. There was no single event that occurred that revealed this truth to me and set me down the dark and terrible path I was now traveling. Ostensibly, the escalating violence in the city was what started it. There was no law in this town at all, no structure to protect us as we went about our daily lives, no explanation for anything that happened. The people in the hotel restaurant in Petersburg who died when men burst in and sprayed the room with gunfire, my acquaintance who was shot in the face during a robbery, my schoolmate – someone I had sat next to and practiced dialog drills with – found bound to a chair in an apartment in Alma-Aty, his throat slit and passport missing. Like everybody, I struggled to find the meaning behind these events, the reason for them. I could not cope with the idea that at any moment, for no reason at all, my number might come up. If I accepted this truth, I feared that like the bureaucrats in Stalin’s time I’d choose to rush headlong towards my fate instead of waiting passively for it to befall me. And so instead, like the deluded victims of Stalin’s terror, like anyone living in a world that has gone crazy, I searched for an answer. The one I came up with only made me feel worse.

I would walk home each day with my loaf of bread or carton of milk and would imagine – I was just imagining it, right? – the stares of my neighbors. If they were looking at me just a little too closely, and I was all of the sudden certain that they were, it could only be for one reason. I was the only American, the only foreigner, in this neighborhood. Everybody else in the buildings that lined my small street was a normal, working-class Russian. I remembered what had happened to me, the only American in my dorm, when word got out that I lived there. I remembered what I learned in school about Stalin’s Terror: how the neighbors would turn on the better-off members of the community out of envy and desperation. And I remembered what happens in any society to outsiders when that society starts to crumble.

Most of the people in my neighborhood were unemployed, and like everyone in the country, they were desperately poor. They hung around in the street all day and into the evening, smoking and talking, watching me as I came and went. They noticed that each day I brought home a little bread or a few eggs – not much, but still something. I could hear their voices right outside my first-floor living room window as they stood on the curb, passing the time. What were they talking about, I wondered as I lay in my bed, what ideas were they having? I was most afraid of Marat, the teenaged son of my landlady. He lived in the building next to me and never once exhibited any kind of criminal behavior or bad intent. But in my mind, as the days went by and I became more and more afraid, he was the leader of a gang of teenagers that would make its move soon, any day now. They wouldn’t do it out of any innate evilness, I knew. They’d do it because, in times like these, it was them or me.

I cursed myself for not taking a gun when I left Lyosha, and for not listening when that man warned me to find an apartment with a steel door. I was completely alone and unprotected here, with no way to defend myself. Absolutely anything could happen, and one of these nights, I was sure, it would. I stopped sleeping at night and lay in the bed fully clothed, clutching a wrench I had purchased at the emigrant market. I had tried for a few nights to sleep under the bed, thinking that when they broke in they would not be able to find me, but then realized that of course they’d look under the bed. They’d surround the bed and peek under it and there I’d be, trapped. It was better to be able to move quickly, I decided. If they broke in through the bedroom window, I’d run to the kitchen window and leap to the street. If they broke in the front door, I’d dive out the bedroom window and disappear into the woods behind my building. The critical thing was to be alert, to always be listening, so I’d be ready when the time came.

I was losing my mind; really, honestly, losing my mind. I knew this, but there seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. Every time I would make an effort to sit myself down and take stock of the situation, to get a grip on reality, I would run up against the fact that the reality was terrifying and dangerous. I was not making up the mafia hits and the shoot-outs on the street, the murders and attempted murders of the people I knew, the skyrocketing crimes against foreigners as the natives got more and more desperate. And OK, maybe I was imagining the stares of my neighbors and the plans of Marat. But then again, maybe I wasn’t.

My efforts to cope with the crippling anxiety I felt at all times only made things worse. I stopped leaving the house most days, stopped visiting the people I knew who were still in Moscow, because I wanted to limit my exposure to the outside world and its potential for violence. This resulted in a terrible isolation that robbed me of any alternate perspective I might have gotten from others. I was alone with my thoughts and my fears, and they grew louder and louder each day until they drowned out everything else. I knew better than to try to dispel them, but I hoped to at least dampen them with the only two activities I engaged in those days.

The first was drinking. I would get out of bed in the morning, at first light, and would lie down on the couch with a jelly glass full of vodka, exhausted and relieved and amazed at having survived another night. I did not want to think about what drinking vodka at 5am might actually mean about me, though, so I would stir in a spoonful of cayenne pepper. Someone – Galina Petrovna? Nadejda Alexandrovna? – had once recommended treating a cold with this concoction. And so, I told myself as the liquid seared my throat, this is not vodka, this is medicine. I need this, I thought, as I poured and measured my third glass of the morning. I am not well.

The second was reading. I no longer wrote anything at all; in fact, several days earlier, in a fit of some kind of mania, I had ripped all the pages out of my spiral notebooks and had stood on the couch in the living room and thrown them all up in the air. They rained down around me, hundreds and hundreds of pages covered with all the words that made up my life in Moscow, and blanketed the entire living room in a disorderly paper blizzard. That had been days ago, and the papers still lay there, crinkling as I walked on them. I also, for the first and only time in my life, no longer listened to music. I’d stopped abruptly one day a week or so ago. I’d been sitting at my table drinking vodka and listening to “This Old Porch,” by Lyle Lovett. “This old porch is just a long time of waiting and forgetting,” sang Lyle, “and remembering the coming back, and not crying about the leaving.” I got up and switched off the tape. It was too dangerous to listen to this music. I needed to disappear, I told myself, to be unheard and invisible. That was the only way to stay safe.

The best way to disappear, I found, even better than drinking, was by reading. I was so frightened by this point that I had to force myself to leave the house for food and vodka, but reading was different. Reading was the only thing that gave me any comfort at all; I could completely and utterly vanish for as long as the book lasted. Reading became so critical to me that, in spite of my fear, I would scurry out once a week to the English-language bookstore over by Red Square and buy as many books as I could hide in the waistband of my pants. I had always been a voracious reader, but not a particularly weighty one. But now, teetering on the cusp of some fairly serious mental illness, I dove in as deep as I could. I read the entire works of Kafka and Orwell, of Kundera and Hegel, of Kant and Barthes and Rand. I read everything Dostoyevsky wrote, and then re-read The Idiot one more time for good measure. I read all of Bulgakov, the entire USA cycle by John Dos Pasos; The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, and my old friend Gogol. So bad off was I that I even read Ulysses, by James Joyce. I skipped all the Twain and the Dickens and the Austin and the Hemmingway. A bunch of lightweights they were, I decided. I did not want to read anything that made me feel good or offered me any kind of distraction or hope. I wanted to read people who created maps of the landscape I was now inhabiting, whose characters were damned simply because they were alive.

I would sit in the kitchen next to the open oven door and read a book in one day. It was the only thing I had to do to fill up the time. The amount I was reading was exhausting me mentally, and it was also exhausting the few funds I had left now that I was no longer working. I could see where this was going – the math was pretty simple – and I knew that eventually if I did not stop I would run completely out of money. Then I would not only be bookless, but homeless. But I did not care. I could not stop. I thought vaguely every once in a while about looking for another job. Then I would picture myself twitching in a chair in front of the editor of the Moscow Times and would abandon the thought. Getting the job at the Guardian had been like being struck by benevolent lightening. The odds that something like this would happen again were approximately zero. I still had no skills and no resume, and now, to make matters worse, I was crazy. The despair and fear I was experiencing over what I was doing drove me to do even more of it to try to stop thinking about it, and dug me deeper and deeper into my hole.

My biggest problem, though, the reason I believe that I was actually, certifiably crazy – even more than the alcohol, even more than the Ayn Rand -- was my complete lack of sleep. I never, ever slept. Literally. Perhaps every three days I would drift off in the late morning for 45 minutes or so, but I quickly learned that the price for this lack of attention was too high to pay. I would start awake from my murky sleep and would leap to my feet, terrified. They were here! They had been waiting for me to let my guard down and now they were here! I would run to the bedroom and look everywhere, under the bed, in the small refrigerator where I kept my clothes, behind the curtains covering the windows. I’d go from room to room doing the same thing, sure that they had gotten in, sure that while I was checking behind the stove in the kitchen they had moved to the shower in the bathroom. It was better to remain awake, I resolved. That way I’d be aware of everything that was going on around me at every moment, and would never, ever be surprised.

After about 4 days of vodka-fueled insomnia, I began to hallucinate. Bright lights flashed in the corners of my eyes, dark blobs spidered their way across my vision. That was it, I decided, the nail in the coffin. Somewhere I recognized that I was now so ill, and so compromised, that the “true” nature of reality no longer mattered. Even if I had wanted to, I could no longer ascertain what was real and what wasn’t, what might hurt me and what might not. Even if I had wanted to call for help, I no longer knew how. The days of sitting myself down and giving myself a stiff talking to were long gone, and no longer mattered. What mattered right now was this very minute, this very page, this very breath. I wrapped myself up in my terror, and waited for morning.


Jeffrey said...

You've gone brutally dark and without warning, despite the hint the other day of what was to come. You need only turn into a cockroach or be executed for a crime never explained, let alone committed, to make the Czech proud.

Erin said...

Wow Robin. I'm astonished by your bravery in writing this down. It can't be easy to relive. I only hope it's therapeutic for you in some way.

Robin said...

Well, Erin, I really don't think I'll ever get over reading Ulysses.