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Glas New Russian Writing #51: The Scared Generation


Glas New Russian Writing #51: The Scared Generation Cover




Boris Yampolsky, THE OLD ARBAT

What really did happen then? What took place in that office — clean and of lofty proportions, like the hall of a crematorium — when my name was mentioned?

"Arrest him!"

The young lieutenant just out of a KGB college wrote out the warrant, admiring as he did so his own self-assured handwriting, the elegance and legibility of which had landed him this particular posting. Then this neat product of the art of calligraphy, endorsed by the section commander with a signature resembling an express train hurtling along at full speed, was recorded in the book and despatched through the appropriate channels.

The day before a 'fitter' came to the courtyard.

"And what about that bloke?" asked the 'fitter' as if in passing, nonchalantly, and with a somehow brooding and distracted air. "The long-haired one..."

Ovid the janitor appeared puzzled. "Which one's that, then?" he asked, looking away from the 'fitter'.

"You know the one: full of himself, an egghead," said the 'fitter', sidling closer and also looking away.

"Oh, him," remembered Ovid. "Hasn't been seen for three days."

"Hasn't been home at night?"

"Maybe his job's taken him away somewhere," surmised Ovid.

The 'fitter' reported back: "Not present at address."

And the lieutenant-colonel or major, or perhaps just captain, without thinking, almost without looking, drew a line through the authorization, cancelling it for the time being.

Then everyone was inundated by a new campaign, with new enemies; in this new political configuration yesterday's enemies ceased to be of any significance whatsoever, and there were no medals to be won for taking them out, no commendations and no bonuses.

Or perhaps it was like this:

"Everything's taken: we've been given extra numbers, transports to organize — and no vehicles."

Then the man in the steel-blue military blouse as if letting fall a casual remark, with studied indifference, gave his order:

"Cut the numbers!"

And it was this word 'cut', harsh and short, one of two hundred and twenty thousand in the contemporary Russian language, that for a second time gave me the gift of life.

Now that Moscow has had the broad and towering New Arbat Avenue driven through it, the Old Arbat has been left as a tranquil, narrow side-street, lying forgotten and out of the way. Although pedestrians now cross it at will, it was at one time a street subject to the strictest discipline, along which, they say, Stalin was in the habit of driving to and from his dacha outside Moscow.

With all its aristocratic stone mansions, blackened barrack-like buildings from the first Five-Year Plans and square concrete blocks of flats, with its entrenched smells, its little old women in antiquated coats and hats and Young Pioneers in their red kerchiefs, the old Arbat lived a life that was hidden from view, secret, classified, in which each building, each entrance, each window was listed in an inventory, and in which everyone was followed and kept under close scrutiny.

From the famous 'Prague', with its securely boarded-up front entrance and desolate flat roof, which had long since ceased to be the 'Prague' and was now jam-packed with offices large and small, where long after the war there were still shell cases from the anti-aircraft battery lying around, and where a generation had been born and grown up not even knowing that this had once been a renowned restaurant, — anyway, from the 'Prague' as far as the 'Gastronom' food store on Smolensk Street, the Arbat exhibited as it were a second face. There was the cheerful hat shop in the 'Prague', on the corner; the stationer's on the corner of Silver Lane redolent of school, geometry sets and virginal lined paper; 'Children's World' with its pot-bellied, multi-coloured Russian stacking dolls; the pet shop with orange fish in aquaria and odours of droppings and down from suffering birds; the antique shop with golden vases bearing depictions of Egyptian pharaohs and Roman legionaries; the Vakhtangov Theatre, rebuilt after the bombing raids, with a poster for The Two Gentlemen of Verona. But above all this, like a shadowy silhouette imposed on the street, or a shifting mask, there stretched along the whole street a stern, mysterious and unspeaking human chain, wearing identical beaver coats and overshoes in winter, and in summer smock shirts and open sandals. In blizzards, rain or fog, when the lilacs and jasmine were in blossom, and when the leaves were falling, at dawn when the first trolleybuses emerged, in the rush hour, at the hour when theatres emptied, and at the hour of the cash collectors, on New Year's and Easter night, and May Day, yesterday, today and tomorrow — always — there was this silent human chain on the Arbat. They lined the whole street, avoiding the light of street lamps, standing at intersections or the entrances to blocks of flats, pretending to be residents, and stared at the road. But suddenly they would be seized by a frenzy. The traffic lights turned red at all crossroads simultaneously, and the police telephones howled in their large metallic boxes; the human chain would surge forward to the edge of the pavement, and it was as if a bare electric cable had opened up in the middle of the street and the whole Arbat, with all its shop windows, had a high-voltage current passing through it.

Vasil Bykov, THE MANHUNT

Chapter One

A Man on the Village Outskirts

The water meadow by the river, scattered with wide spinneys of willowherb, was steadily turning green with late autumn aftermath. Since the recent rains the neighbouring marshes had overflowed. The stream, which never ran deep in summer, had burst its banks and flooded the meadow. It was marshy and swollen with soft, young moss. The moss sank pliantly underfoot and seeped muddy water, but did not give way; there were no quagmires here. It was autumn now, the water meadow oozed moisture; in summer, at haymaking time, it was dry here; the mowers walked about freely and carts laden with hay drove across it. Wheelmarks and hoofprints still shone faintly with black water in the fresh grass. There was water everywhere. It corroded the leather of his boots like alkali and seeped through his footcloths. He should have sat down and changed his footwear, but paying no heed to the wet or the lack of a path the man headed straight across the swamped meadow.

The autumn day was drawing to a close in a windy hush. There wasn't a living soul about. There were people working in the field, digging potatoes, but nobody had any cause to go to the far off water meadow. The man was aware of this, but he was uneasy all the same, almost alarmed. There was something unnaturally tense in his hurried step; his inveterate, chronic anxiety, revealed momentarily by a tenacious, watchful glance, was usually concealed by a gloomy, aged countenance, greyed with stubble. His mouth was half open, from fatigue or constant tension. His two bottom teeth were visible beneath a drooping moustache, the upper ones were partly covered. The man's breathing was hoarse and rapid: walking across the marsh wasn't easy. He wore a home-spun peasant coat, rusty-brown with age, with a patched collar; a narrow thong, its end dangling, was tied round his skinny middle. A tight, black cap, which had lost its shape long ago, was pulled down low on his head: this was obviously not its first year of wear. The same went for his trousers, a motley ancient-looking patchwork affair. His boots were another matter. Although limp and sodden, they were cut from firm raw hide, stretched over his ankles with new string laces and dexterously fastened again below his wet trouser legs. The man carried no bag or bundle, his free hands were clenched vigilantly. He had been walking alone a long time, avoiding other people, growing used to solitude. People presented the greatest danger to him in the fields and villages and on the roads, and he chose roundabout ways — through copses and fields or, better still, through the forest. During his time of solitude he had grown unaccustomed to the sound of human voices. He was perpetually silent, thinking till his head ached, now and then hurriedly eyeing his surroundings. His hearing had become so acute that he could easily make out the rustle of birds in the branches or pick up the sound of wheels on the road a mile off, and the dim voices of children in the distance told him exactly where a village herd was grazing. He had no fear of herds. On three occasions he had obtained food from cowherds — bread or potatoes, and once he had had the luck to be given a small piece of salt-pork by some little girls tending cows near the wood. Emerging from the bushes, he had first enquired about the village nearby and the little girls' names, then asked for bread. He could see that they were frightened, but the eldest took a piece of bread and some salt-pork out of the pocket of her jacket and silently held it out to him. He took the morsel and walked away and, although he was as hungry as a wolf, he could not eat it immediately — the frightened glance of the girl had troubled him so, reminding him unexpectedly of Olga. He made his way into the depths of the fir forest and wept — perhaps for the first time since the day he had buried his little daughter. She had not been destined to see her native land, God had claimed her in a foreign place.

But her father had seen it.

The hay fields with their willowherb and the little river parted company up ahead, above the meadow scrubs a pine grove shone green on the hill, and Khvedor slowed his pace, struck unexpectedly by the view spread out before him. From a long way off he could see the clump of aged pine trees standing tall on the little hill, below it lay the high road on which he had so often driven to the station or the borough town to buy things, to go to market to pay his grain levies or plead with the authorities. All his solicitations had proved in vain, the taxes had to be paid in full: then they had imposed a levy he could not pay. That had been the end of his good fortune... The hill did not appear to have changed in the years of his exile, the fresh green of the pine trees stood out elegantly from the grey autumnal scrub. The pine trees seemed to be greeting him from that sad day when he had bade them farewell on his way to the station. Khvedor longed to turn towards the familiar hill, climb its steep slope, breathe in the resinous scent of the conifers and touch the rough bark of the pines with his hands, but he did not. It was so close and he longed for it, but there were other places he knew awaiting him further on, and on the highroad beyond the hill he might meet people, his own people, the people he knew, the villagers. He feared meeting his own people more than anything now.

So that was how life had turned out. Fate had torn him away from the place of his birth and landed him in places of which he had never even heard. He had tried to run away twice in the past year — like a fool, without the slightest chance of success. But then, just as hope seemed to have abandoned him and he was ready to reconcile himself with captivity, he had been lucky. Could it really be that he would soon see his native home: what had once been his own field, the village roofs of Nedolishche with its poor soil, the marshy common pasture, the impassable elder thickets by the stream? Here he had been born and spent his early years, and here his future had shone before him with sweet, delusive hope.

Product Details

Bykov, Vasil
Polonsky, Rachel
Yampolsky, Boris
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Second Edition
New Russian Writing
Publication Date:
8 x 5 in

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Fiction and Poetry » Anthologies » International
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Glas New Russian Writing #51: The Scared Generation New Trade Paper
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Product details 270 pages Glas New Russian Writing - English 9785717200905 Reviews:
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With the current political situation in Russia and in Belarus, this book is more relevant today than ever before.
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