Leningrad, Russia, 1979
When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great gray span of the Neva. The river was a churning organ in the city's center--not its heart, surely, something more practical and less sentimental but just as necessary. The amygdala, maybe, or both kidneys. It had been six days from Okha--on a boat and then a train--and out the window he'd seen the entire country: first the teetering spires of Sakhalin's drilling rigs, as familiar to Aleksandr as his own dreams; then the abandoned green train at the port, melting into the sand ever since the war with the Japanese; then the ten thousand salmon rotting in the sun on the eastern shore, waiting for Moscow to telegram permission for their loading; then the curling stems of smoke above the villages that were impossibly far apart (he never knew he'd been living in a country this enormous all along). He saw deconsecrated cathedrals, miners with faces black and hard as their coal, great shoals of stunted grass and bleached sky. By the time he arrived at Moskovsky Vokzal, he thought he'd just about seen enough. He knew he should be grateful. The trip to Leningrad had required months of bureaucratic maneuvering, papers acquired and signed and lost, attempts and reattempts and bribes from Andronov, the man who would be Ale-k-sandr's trainer at the academy. Finally, one day, Aleksandr's entry visa had arrived--with all the randomness of a June snowstorm or a plague of falling frogs--and that was the bottom line, he often thought: not that you could be sure that nothing would work, but that you could be sure you would never, never know what would.
And on the tracks--amid the screeches of braking trains and departing lovers, and the coiling smells of grease and cigarettes and cooking oil and acrid cologne--he almost lost his nerve. He almost wanted to drop his luggage on the track and ride the train all the way back to the Pacific, although his only chess set was in his rucksack and he was nearly out of bribe money. As the train had pulled into the station, the man next to him announced to the entire car that today was Stalin's centenary. Everybody around looked quickly away. But here was the evidence: Sinopskaya Naberezhnaya was overrun with police, their uniforms striking red and gold against the horrible white sun. They were there to make sure nobody got too mouthy or too festive.
"Papers?" A policeman was behind him; his tone suggested that Aleksandr had already ruined his day. Aleksandr drew his hand against his eyes, and delicate grains of soot fell from his eyebrows. Just over one of the policeman's gargantuan shoulders, Aleksandr caught snatches of the green-gray Neva. Its stark and sturdy arm put the city in a headlock, he thought, or held it up like an osteoporotic backbone.
"Papers?" the policeman said again. His chinstrap was digging into his prodigious neck, and his gilt cockade flashed in the sun. Aleksandr rifled in his rucksack. When he produced his papers, the policeman appraised them with a sour look and tapped his nightstick against his thigh.
"Sakhalin?" he said. "Did you take the wrong train?"
And Aleksandr thought: It's a real possibility.
"No? Do you talk? Never mind. I don't care. Go on. I'm sure you know what day it is."
Aleksandr did know. And he was starting to decide about the Neva, too: really, it was the brain. Not the part of the brain that thinks up sonnets or show-offy chess moves; not the part that sighs sorrowfully in corners and reads Solzhenitsyn and wonders what it all can mean. It was the part that tells you to fuck, to run from things, to live, even when your better nature tells you not to.
Years later, after Aleksandr stopped playing chess and started playing politics, the city would become something altogether different. Bored women with absent eyebrows in Turkish silk bobbed in the lines outside nightclubs, pouring vodka of insane expense into the snow and laughing. Enormous billboards and neon signs made stamps of light against the sky, advertising dreams and attitudes and lifestyles of varying degrees of attainability. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg became a place to make and blow loads of cash--there were businesses and ladies enough for industrious men to conquer. Eventually, chess became something different also--once Aleksandr became the world champion and his brilliance was remarked upon so often that it became tedious. This was how somebody with some kind of unusual beauty--enchanting mismatched eyes, impossibly red hair--must feel: after a while, receiving extra credit for something so arbitrary becomes a burden. Chess was a part of him, no different from his poor posture or homely face. And chess became a humiliation and an indictment in the end--after he'd lost the title and his better moments were forgotten but his one best moment, that one best game, still hung over him, preceded him always, like a leper's bell. He was very good for a while, and then something else was better.
But when he was young, he'd had a whole life to imagine.
Stumbling out into the day from the train station felt like emerging from imprisonment only to be lined up against the wall and shot. Aleksandr made his way to his kommunalka first, picking through throngs of stern-looking people, and several small children tried to steal from him before he even made it out onto the street. He followed his careful directions to himself and kept a dumb, hyper-focused attention on his papers. The number of people here was staggering, and more people than lived in the entirety of Okha stepped on Aleksandr's feet before he made it to his new building.
The building was three stories tall and looked, from a distance, like a pile of cinders. In the packed brown snow of the front yard, a very young man stood next to an overturned trunk. The trunk's lid was -unhinged like a half-open jaw, and its contents were splattered across the yard; clearly, it had recently been thrown down the blocky staircase. On the stoop stood a gray-curled old lady in a red housecoat. From the way she was shaking her fist at the young man, Aleksandr figured she was the steward. Up close, he could see that the front door--formerly red, he thought--was splintering. The windows above it were welded shut.
"Excuse me," said Aleksandr. "I'm moving in today."
The steward ignored him. "Go away," she said to the young man with the trunk. "Go away and never come back."
And Aleksandr thought: Maybe it's not too late.
The steward handed Aleksandr his keys. In the kitchen, the rusty communal sink smelled of urine. An older woman in a bathrobe, her hair piled implausibly into a towel, was making toast underneath the exposed piping. On the other side of the kitchen hung decadent skeins of ladies' panty hose. On the bathroom shower curtain, bright green frogs frolicked between patches of black mold. In the hallway, a sign admonished the tenants not to hang up their underwear outside.
Aleksandr's room contained a bed bolted to the floor, a chitinous desk, and an urn-shaped samovar, presumably left over from the previous tenant. Near the ceiling, the laths were showing through the plaster. Raggedy strips of light filtered through the tiny fortochka above the bed, and Aleksandr went to lie in them. The exposed mattress was vaguely moist against his skin. He stretched out his legs. In Okha, he'd shared a bed with his two kicking little sisters, and they'd thrashed all night like dying fish.
He stared at the crescent-shaped fungal smear on the wall; he gazed through the latticework of frost on the windowpane. He tried to sleep. At the end of the week on the train, he'd been so desperate for sleep that he'd tried briefly to sleep in the bathroom--balanced precariously above the hole that emptied onto the tracks--until someone had yelled at him to get the fuck out, idiot. But in bed, he found that he missed the oceanic rumble of the train. He found that he was restless with the energy of being somewhere new when, his whole life, he'd only ever been somewhere old. He found he didn't feel like taking off his shoes yet.
He thought of the policemen down at the train station. He wondered if, out in the city somewhere, anybody was dumb enough to be celebrating.
He wrestled his map from his pocket, picked up his rucksack, and headed down the stairs. In the kitchen, he passed a woman who was using a filthy spatula to scrape the remains of an egg off a pan. She looked at Aleksandr darkly and did not speak. Outside, the cold was settling into itself--announcing its scope, the way pain does after a moment or two--and the cold, along with the accumulated fatigue of six days on a train (two of them spent standing up), was making Aleksandr dizzy. All around him, buildings were painted blue only up to height level, and Aleksandr felt as though he were trapped in the mural of a child who had grown bored and wandered away. The wind kicked up.
Nevsky Prospekt was beautiful: the friezes and columns looked like ancient Rome, and the half-buried stores and bright orange signs and illuminated cinemas looked like the center of the very modern universe. Aleksandr recognized the rally by a beaming poster of Stalin, held high above the crowd like a grandfatherly, mustached god. The crowd was small--desultory and damp, ringed by nervous-looking police. As he approached, Aleksandr saw that the Stalins were everywhere: out of one photo, Stalin glowered menacingly; out of another, Stalin stared with an expression of stern benevolence. Into a microphone, a man droned dully about the Battle of Stalingrad. At the edge of the crowd lurked a small group of men with skunk-striped Mohawks and plaid shirts. Aleksandr leaned against a telephone pole and tried to listen. He was exhausted, he realized, and here--in this last pocket of stingy sun, with the wind breaking at the buildings behind him and the monotone buzz of military accomplishment in his ears--he thought he could probably fall asleep standing up. He pulled his cap tighter over his head. His gaze faltered. His head started to fall forward.
"Enjoying the show?" A man was talking to him. Aleksandr lifted his earflaps and looked. The man was tall and thin; when he moved, it looked like his joints were locking and unlocking and painfully rearranging themselves. He was holding a glass bottle of Pepsi and wearing no gloves. Next to him stood two other men. One was notably pale, even for here, and had eyes the color of kopecks. The other was short, scarred, and writing furiously in a notebook. His mouth moved as if he was chewing something, even though Aleksandr somehow felt sure that he was not. All three of them were dressed in striped sailor shirts and quilted jackets and sodden flapped hats. The tall one wore a small silver medallion around his neck.
"Indeed," said Aleksandr. "Quite a sight."
"To think Koba would be one hundred," said the tall man. His voice was flatter than irony. "What a pity he is not here to enjoy the party."
"True," said Aleksandr. "It's evidently true."
"His reforms were truly adequate to the task of modernization, am I right?"
"Very adequate. More than adequate."
"And that mustache," said the pale one. "That mustache was quite an achievement, yes? Koba had more hair in that mustache than some men have on their entire heads."
Aleksandr turned to look at him. There was something about this one's face that made Aleksandr not want to look at it straight: a haggardness underneath the eyes that raised uncomfortable questions about life in Leningrad. "Yes," said Aleksandr, staring balefully at the ground. "An impressive feat."
The tall man looked at Aleksandr with some amusement then. When he leaned in, his voice was lower. "Did you know he was five feet four?" he said. "He was. He was five feet four and had a bad arm. They never showed it in pictures. They never showed him standing next to anybody. He's sitting in all the pictures with other dignitaries."
"I didn't know that," said Aleksandr carefully. "I was given to believe that Comrade Stalin was a man of some stature."
Aleksandr did not understand how things had gone so wrong so fast, so he turned to the short man, whose scars looked as if they might have just as easily been from fights as from some debilitating skin disease, and stuck out his hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm Aleksandr Kimovich Bezetov. I just moved here." He cast a bright smile, because in Okha, old women had always responded well to his smile. The men shot glances at one another and seemed to experience some collective facial twitching. It wasn't eye-rolling, precisely, but Aleksandr was seized by a frozen feeling that it meant something similar. He looked at the men and squinted. He tried to see in them signs of trouble, but they just looked like everyone else he'd seen on his way from the train station--underslept and vaguely hostile. The tall one was thin, but the other two looked simultaneously chubby and wanly malnourished, as though they'd had enough to eat of only one kind of food. The shortest one crouched down to the ground, revealing the haunches of a mustelid.
"I'm Ivan Dmietrivich Bobrikov," said the thin one. "This is Nikolai Sergeyevich Chernov."
"A pleasure," said Nikolai from the ground.
"The sovok here is Mikhail Andreyevich Solovyov," said Ivan. "Where are you from?"
"Okha," said Aleksandr. "In the East."
"We know where Okha is," said Nikolai. "We're students of geography."
"Geography?" said Aleksandr politely.
"Well, history," said Ivan. He cracked his knuckles.
"Real history," said Mikhail.
"Shut up, Misha," said Ivan. He winked at Aleksandr as though they were adults looking over the head of a child. Aleksandr didn't know what would be communicated by winking back, so he didn't. "And why are you here, tovarish?" said Ivan.
In the center of the crowd, a man was offering a tender eulogy for Stalin. His voice buckled and his nose turned bright red with emotion.
"To play chess," said Aleksandr. "I have a place at the academy. I'm working with Andronov."
"Oh yes? And what is a boy from Okha doing at the academy with Andronov?"
Aleksandr scratched his nose. "I was in his correspondence course first."
"I see," said Ivan. "You have a favorite player, then? You like Spassky?"
"He's all right. He let himself be psychologically outmaneuvered by Fischer, though, in '72. All the nonsense with the money and the late arrival."
"That match was rigged by the Americans, though, am I right? They were controlling Spassky via chemical and electronic devices, yes?"