I'm on a train again and there's a fly in my compartment. It may move freely around the car but is unlikely to ever manage to slip out into the bigger world: all the windows are shut - because the air conditioner is on. Trapped inside the train car, this fly will never zigzag over the fresh raw meat at a crowded bazaar. It'll never mate under a Bohemian crystal chandelier, will never land afterwards to rest on one of those dazzling crystal drops, will never dull the drop's magical rainbow gloss with its carefree excrement.
The train fly will never know any of such pleasures - but at least it's safe from the deadly glue strips hanging from the lamps in oh so many cramped kitchens all over this vast former Soviet Empire. If this particular fly is an average representative of its species, it'll live like this for about 20 days. Then it'll die.
It's 9:30 a.m. and I'm about to spend the next 24 hours as a guest in the fly's home. We'll cross the bridge over the Dnieper, leaving behind Kyiv's golden church domes, sunlit and welcoming, nestled cozily on the emerald slopes underneath the monstrous titanium statue of a woman - the Soviet-time Motherland - holding up a shield and a sword in a victoriously ominous way.
We'll travel north, across the Ukrainian border and into Belarus - but by then I'll be reading one of the three books I've picked for the trip, in the relative privacy of the upper bunk, oblivious to the fly somewhere out there, to my human compartment-mates below and to the fresh-air-filled world outside. We'll enter Russia at night, and the next morning we'll be in St. Petersburg, arriving at the oldest Russian train station, Vitebskiy Vokzal, famous for its renovated interiors that Anna Akhmatova and the Russian czars used to pass through a century earlier.
My compartment-mates this time are an exhausted, unshaven man in his early thirties and a plump, middle-aged woman. The fourth one is missing, and for a while the compartment feels like a pleasant breed between a four-bunk second class and a two-bunk first class - until the man decides to take a morning nap.
Like so many people here, he is too poor to pay $1.30 for the bedding, so he takes off his worn-out black socks, hangs them on the rack on the wall as if they were a towel and lies down on the bare upper bunk, placing his head on a darkest dark-blue pillow. The compartment suddenly acquires a feel of a prison cell, and somehow I'm not surprised.
I decide to read my book by the window, sitting opposite the woman who, to my delight, is not talkative. All I know is that she, unlike me, has been on this train many times before, traveling to St. Petersburg, the city of her birth, to visit childhood friends. Unlike me, she's not panicking about being canned inside for the next day and night. She's wearing a comfy flannel robe and is busy working through a puzzle booklet. On the table next to her, a Russian edition of Good Housekeeping is awaiting its turn.
I begin to choose between the three books I have and eventually go for the thinnest one, "The Autumn of the Patriarch" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The other two are identical in size - but one, "Jerusalem" by Amos Elon, is too relevant, too painful to pass for train reading at the time when yet another Middle East peace plan is going belly-up, while the other, "Love Medicine" by Louise Erdrich, "the saga of two Native American families," according to the blurb, seems way too distant in its subject matter.
A few hours pass. Finally, I have to admit that "The Autumn of the Patriarch" is one of the toughest books - physically if not intellectually. As the first chapter comes to an end, so does the first and the only paragraph in it, 38 thickset little pages long. A train in this part of the world isn't a library; even though it provides relative sequestration, disturbances abound. People walk back and forth through your car, past your compartment; the sceneries are fast-forwarded outside the window; the railroad is bumpy as hell; every once in while the music is turned on, and some awful Russian pop song or an equally awful instrumental rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" never fails to make you wonder if the country that operates this train is indeed signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Every time my eyes slither off the Garcia Marquez text, there is no easy way to get them back - lacking those helpful hooks of paragraph indentations, the pages are as unyielding for a train reader as the Everest is for an unfit alpinist.
At the Ukrainian border, about four hours into our journey, a very young, blond man in uniform walks in to check our passports. His eyes are the bluest I've ever seen, and I can't help staring at him while he compares my nerdy passport picture to my disheveled train self. I notice he's wearing a wedding ring. I start thinking of his wife, how proud she must be to have snatched a husband who looks like a Russian fairy-tale hero, in this God-forsaken, tiny Ukrainian town.
When the handsome border control guard leaves and the train begins moving again, out of Ukraine and into Belarus, I resume reading - and I read this:
"...I'll only keep the presidential guard who are straight shooters and brave fellows and I'm not going to name any cabinet, God damn it, just a good minister of health which is the only thing anyone really needs in life, and maybe another one with a good hand for what has to be put in writing, and that way we can rent out the ministries and barracks and save the money for help, because what's needed here isn't people but money, we'll get two good maids, one for cleaning and cooking and the other to wash and iron, and I'll take care of the cows and the birds myself..."
Several hours later, the Belarusian border control and customs people visit our compartment. The weather is wonderful and sunny, but I'm slightly nervous: this is the first time I'm going to Russia through Belarus. Normally, I take an overnight train from Kyiv to Moscow and, in the middle of the night, have to deal with Russian, not Belarusian, officials. On this route, however, Russia has entrusted Belarus with deciding who may enter the former via the latter and who may not. Ukrainians still have visa-free access. Americans and other "Westerners" who fail to obtain a Belarusian transit visa will most likely be taken off the train right here, in the town of Gomel, Belarus, population 503,711. The train will then proceed without them to Vitebsk, the hometown of Marc Chagall, where it'll finally cross into Russia undisturbed by another set of border formalities.
Though I can't speak for the rest of the train, our compartment doesn't hold interest for the Belarusian border control. Surprisingly, they turn out to be very friendly and polite, unlike some of their Russian counterparts. This does surprise me because I've heard so much about the evil regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko, how he thinks that half of the U.S. Embassy staff are spies, et cetera. Not that I have any relation to American diplomats, though.
I return to my book. I read:
"...because they could not admit that the mother of the chief of state would hang a pouch of camphor around her neck to ward off all contagion and tried to jab the caviar with her fork and staggered about in her patent leather pumps, nor could they accept the fact that she kept a beehive on the terrace of the music room, or bred turkeys and watercolor-painted birds in public offices or put the sheets out to dry on the balcony from which the speeches were made, nor could they bear the fact that at a diplomatic party she had said I'm tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time..."
This, of course, is when an obvious thought crosses my mind: Here I am, on a train again, passing through the land of one dictator, reading a book about another! The fictional dictator with a nutty mother, and Lukashenko, the real one, with a wife who allegedly continues to live on a farm in the village of Ryzhkovichi, milking cows, while he, a former director of a collective farm, runs his little country the way he pleases.
Just when I put "The Autumn of the Patriarch" down on the table to give my eyes some rest and muse about the strange ways in which fiction and reality sometimes join forces, the woman in my compartment shuts her Good Housekeeping magazine and says bitterly: "I thought this would last me the whole trip - but it's so full of ads. Only ads and nothing else! The rest is boring. Such a waste of money." I nod in sympathy - because when she puts the magazine on the table, I can see the cover headlines: GEISHAS - SEEMS LIKE THERE'S SOMETHING TO LEARN [FROM THEM] and WHY DO WE [WOMEN] GET MARRIED? Where are the recipes, I think, and where are the stories about gardening, and the anti-ageing tips?
The man who was taking a sockless nap is now sitting next to me, savoring a tabloid whose headlines announce that apes, just like humans, know how to have safe sex, and that ultra-sound is the reason why so many left-handed kids are being born. The man has his socks back on, but I can't keep myself from thinking arrogantly: Thank God, I don't have to marry someone like him.
But, even if I wanted to, I wouldn't have time to let him know. He gets off the train at the first post-border stop.
I make my bed and climb up, thinking of a nap. Just then the toy vendors appear.
Each one is concealed under a furry, colorful menagerie; as a group, they rush through the car with a marketplace buzz, one after another, pausing at every compartment to let the passengers have a look at the toys available. There are Lion Kings, and Dalmatians, and Mickeys, and Tiggers, and blue elephants, and the yellow ones, and plenty other creatures that I just can't identify. The woman in my compartment buys a crazy-looking yellow-pink puppy from a skinny female vendor with sad eyes.
"I already have an order for my trip back: a lion for my niece," she tells this Belarusian vendor, handing her a few Ukrainian paper bills.
"Do you have a return ticket? I could write down the date and the car number and then I'll bring you one," the vendor replies. She doesn't sound hopeful, nor does she look begging; she is pragmatic and business-like, offering quality service to a potential regular client, doing her best to beat a pack of competitors who are breathing down her neck, literally.
"No, I don't know yet when I'll be going back," my compartment-mate says, and even though the vendor with the sad eyes doesn't act like someone asking for pity, I suddenly feel so sorry for her, for her business skills going down the drain, earning her so little in such a tough and humiliating way.
When we arrive in Zhlobin, there are dozens more toy vendors, all ready to storm the train from the outside. But though the car door is open, the stepladder is up. For the next 15 minutes or so, these people are doomed to jostling one another down below on the platform, holding up and waving their animals dramatically, and when this train departs, they'll retreat to the blue wooden benches nearby to wait for the next one.
I stand by the window with my camera, stepping back every time a toy vendor spots me and rushes in my direction to entice me with a toy. It breaks my heart, every single time. But the name of the town, written in pale letters on the train station building, amuses me. I begin to think of a way to translate it into English: Zhlobin - Redneck City or Rednecksville? In Belarus, there's at least one other town with an embarrassing name, meaningless in any of the Slavic languages, but quite graphic when spelled in English: Slutsk.
The sky-blue building of Zhlobin train station is being renovated; a new, unpainted wooden fence encircles it. A teenage girl with two lions walks down the platform. She is wearing a flowery cotton dress that has two dark triangular spots on her flat breasts: she must have gone for a swim while there were no trains and still has her wet swimming suit on, underneath the dress.
I look at the toys passing by; I avoid making eye contact with the people carrying them. This is all so surreal that suddenly I'm reminded of a cannabis re-legalization rally in New York's Washington Square, in 1994, when each one of the hundreds of people there had a joint, and I kept mistaking pigeons for airplanes descending on me at full speed.
"Oh, there used to be a lot more toy vendors here a few years back," my compartment-mate says. "They were so much worse off then, they'd drag you off the train to have you buy something from them."
I don't ask her where they get all these toys - I can guess the answer: these people produce them (or perhaps they produce the artificial fur the toys are made of), and then they are being paid in kind, with these very toys, by their employer. In this part of the world, you may receive your salary in toys, canned pineapples, coffins, bras, grocery carts, condoms, piles of manure, meat grinders, crystal vases, dildos, and Indian rugs.
To be honest, I usually learn about these salary substitutes from the media; this is why I'm so shaken by the toy vendors' parade, the real thing that seems so unreal. Everyone I know earns cash - some as much as a few thousand dollars a month, others as little as $50. All would probably say their incomes are "average" - and, of course, they'd like to earn more.
I doubt, however, that anyone I know seriously aspires to turn into one of those proverbial post-Soviet "stinking rich" one day - by stashing large chunks of state funds in offshore accounts while those hapless toy vendors, the electorate, are busy surviving at the train station. I also hope none will ever descend to the level of the proverbial post-Soviet "dirt-poor" - by working patiently without pay for years and drinking oneself to near death to make this hard life slightly more bearable.
Where I live, people driving new Mercedes and BMWs outnumber people sleeping in the street, and somehow, I don't want to know how either managed to get this way. That is, I don't want to know any more than I already know, and what everybody knows.
In this part of the world, everybody knows about Pavel Borodin's bizarre attempt to attend George W. Bush's inaugural "candlelight dinner" in January 2001. As soon as he stepped off the plane at New York's JFK International Airport, Borodin, the State Secretary of the virtual Union of Russia and Belarus and formerly the chief of the Kremlin property department overseeing $650 billion in assets, was arrested on an extradition request from the Swiss authorities. Bernard Bertossa, Swiss Prosecutor General, aimed to prove that Borodin was guilty of pocketing some $25 million in kickbacks from two Swiss firms, in return for $492-million contracts to refurbish the Kremlin and re-fit President Yeltsin's personal airplane. Once a close associate of Boris Yeltsin, a man who at one point had the future Russian President Vladimir Putin as his deputy, Borodin found himself at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, as inmate No. 55217-053, missing all the festivities for which Bush's inaugural committee had raised a record $40 million. Later, Bertossa somehow failed to collect sufficient evidence against Borodin, allowing this flop of a white-collar criminal to return home on a $2.9-million bail. In spring 2002, Borodin was fined $300,000 and the Swiss case was closed.
If only the ordeal of Pavel Borodin were some anomalous exception, awe-inspiring but singular. We'd spend a few days staring uncomprehendingly at all these millions and billions, and then we'd go back to watching football or arguing about the distant Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the former Soviet Union is teeming with stories like Borodin's, and we do treat them as football at times - we root for the good guys kicking asses of the mega-bad ones and ignore small-time "players" as we would minor teams. And often we seem to pretend that the thieves aren't our compatriots but citizens of some obscure country, dealing in an unheard-of currency that may well be as funny as the Turkish Lira, with all the meaningless zeroes at the end.
I enjoy switching into football-watching mode - for how else is it possible to digest even the most basic facts of another story, the story of Ukraine's former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko?
He got sacked in 1997 and was charged with large-scale corruption and embezzlement in Ukraine. In early December 1998, he fled to Switzerland (on a Panamanian passport, for some reason) and was promptly arrested at the French-Swiss border. The omnipresent Swiss Prosecutor General Bernard Bertossa charged him with money laundering, but then allowed him to go home on a $2.5-million bail. The home Lazarenko chose to return to wasn't in Ukraine, though: in late February 1999, he flew to the United States, where his final destination might have been the 41-room Marin County mansion that once belonged to Hollywood comedian Eddie Murphy. But at JFK, it turned out that something was wrong with his U.S. visa, and Lazarenko was detained. When he finally did reach California, they wouldn't let him enjoy his 18-acre, $6.75-million estate - instead, they charged him with laundering $114 million and locked him up at FCI Dublin, Alameda County, for the next four years. In June 2000, the Swiss convicted Lazarenko in absentia as he admitted to having laundered $9 million (although in 1996 and 1997, the years of his premiership, he reported his annual income as mere $5,040 and $5,570, respectively, perhaps trying to pass for an average Ukrainian). In June 2003, Lazarenko (federal prisoner No. 94430-011) was granted $100-million bail, which has enabled him to participate in late-night teleconference depositions of high-profile Ukrainian witnesses (which he has preferred not to attend in person - possibly because Ukraine still has charges pending against him over his alleged involvement in the murders of two Ukrainian businessmen, back in 1996 and 1998). His trial is set to begin on August 18, and if it does, Lazarenko will become the second highest ranking foreign citizen to be prosecuted in the United States since the Panamanian dictator, General Manuel Noriega, was convicted on drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering charges in 1992.
My compartment-mate is asleep. I wait till it gets dark, hoping that the dim light over my bunk and "The Autumn of the Patriarch" will save me from train insomnia, the most torturous kind that I, both a train guru and a guru insomniac, have ever had to deal with.
I'm trying to remember what it was that caused this lengthy meditation on the two evil namesakes, Pavel the Russian and Pavlo the Ukrainian, or, as they are known to the masses here, Pal Palych and Pavlo Panama. The toy vendors in Zhlobin - they suddenly remind me of Pavel Mazheiko - yes, yet another Pavel, and an ex-con, too, though his story is a different type of post-Soviet farce.
In September 2001, President Lukashenko swept to his second five-year term, winning 75 percent of the vote in the elections that most observers called "neither free nor fair." Mazheiko, a Belarusian journalist, had written critically about Lukashenko - and pissed him off. The newspaper he worked for was closed in November 2001, and Mazheiko, along with the editor-in-chief, was charged with libeling the president. In June 2002, they were convicted. Mazheiko was sentenced to two years at the Zhlobin minimum-security prison, but his sentence was later reduced to one year, and on March 21, 2003, he was granted parole due to his "good behavior."
When he arrived in Zhlobin, Mazheiko hoped he'd be allowed to serve his two years working at a local school or newspaper. But the prison authorities happened to be short of "unskilled labor" and Mazheiko ended up mixing bitumen for them. Despite obvious hardships, he didn't lose heart and started a prison library, accepting book donations from Zhlobin residents, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and his own friends. Soon after the journalist was released, the U.S. Embassy in Belarus contributed a 57-volume collection of works by American authors, translated into Russian. Mazheiko got to visit the prison one more time then, with the Embassy representatives who delivered the books.
We pass the endless forests, swamps and meadows of Belarus. Occasionally, the outskirts of nameless Belarusian towns with their rusty and dusty industrial remains interrupt the peaceful panorama. If the sky hadn't been so clear and the sun so happily blinding, it wouldn't have taken me so long to start thinking of Tolkien's Gollum leading the two hobbits through the Dead Marches, and of Tarkovsky's Stalker taking his two companions, a writer and a scientist, into the heart of the Zone.
If it hadn't been for all the distractions, I would've remembered Chernobyl much sooner. Belarus is slightly smaller than Kansas, and a quarter of its territory is something of a Zone: it received more than half of the radioactive dust expelled from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986. Kyiv, Ukraine's capital with a population of 2.5 million, is just 60 miles or so south of Chernobyl. But, for the first few days after the explosion, the wind was blowing northward, carrying much of the lethal iodine and cesium away from us.
The train advances through the Gomel and Mogilyov regions of Belarus, the most severely contaminated ones. I hate to think about Chernobyl; it depresses me to know how many villages/people were evacuated, how many poor souls returned to live in the unlivable lands, how many people milk cows that feed on radioactive grass, how many children consume the radioactive milk, how Lukashenko's regime encourages people to till the rich but radioactive farmland because otherwise people would have to go without food, how it is now possible to buy a one-day "ecological" tour to Chernobyl and have a picture taken with the "Sarcophagus" in the background, only 100 meters away. It's all making me sick.
In 1986, when I was 12, everything seemed kind of fun. In the morning of April 26, my mother set out to play tennis with a friend - but found a dog instead, a poor scared thing that almost got run over by a car. My mother's friend wasn't upset they didn't get to play; she was tired because her husband, a fireman, had been summoned in the middle of the night - something's happened at Chernobyl, she told my mother rather calmly. When he finally reached his headquarters, however, everyone was already gone, so he returned home (seventeen years later, he is still alive, while those who made it to Chernobyl that night aren't). I came back from school that day and we spent a few hours choosing a name for the dog. We called her Zosya.
On April 28, they first announced there'd been an accident: it was a dry, four-sentence government statement on the evening news. Nothing to worry about. So we continued to walk with Zosya the dog - I was so proud of her. I participated in a tennis tournament, very happy that the Moscow team arrived in the morning and departed in the evening, as soon as they learned about Chernobyl. It never hurts to have fewer really strong opponents, we all thought. I don't remember when school was cancelled, but I still have a clear memory of how excited I was about not having to take that horrible math exam, the first one in my life.
On May 1, the joyful demonstrators marched past our building, waving their red flags and papier-mache flowers, but by that time we'd been advised to stay home as much as possible - advised by my parents' well-informed friends, not by the authorities. I don't remember when Gorbachev finally made his first statement, recommending that we better keep our windows shut, but I'm still wondering how many people will never forgive him for that protracted silence. My parents sent me off to Moscow on the evening of May 7; most other kids had to wait until the middle of May before the official evacuation of Kyiv schools began.
In 1999, I attempted to read a book about Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian author in exile. It was one of the most powerful books I had ever held in my hands: a collection of voices of the Chernobyl dead and the Chernobyl living, a history of Chernobyl and a history of the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union recited in a choir of monologues. Needless to say, President Lukashenko's people accuse Alexievich of working for the CIA, her "Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future" has to be smuggled into Belarus and she has found refuge in France.
I wasn't able to finish the book, though. I wasn't strong enough. When I think of it, I always think about one narration, by an ethnic Russian refugee who escaped the civil war in Tajikistan in the early 1990s. A maternity ward nurse, she had once seen a group of armed men grabbing a newborn girl and throwing her out of the window. This woman re-settled to one of the most contaminated areas of Belarus, where she enjoyed taking long walks in the nearby woods, content at last. She didn't worry about radiation; as long as there were only trees around her and no people, she felt at peace.
A mustached man takes one of the vacant bunks in our compartment somewhere in Mogilyov, when it's already dark outside and I've almost defeated my train insomnia.
In the morning, the three of us drink tea and have a conventional human conversation about TV. The man says that the Belarusian state channels are impossible to watch - all they do is make money by broadcasting personal text greetings - dear this, dear that, happy birthday, happy wedding anniversary. But he has a satellite dish and is addicted to Discovery Channel. He laughs as he talks about a documentary he's seen: just imagine, there exist some savage islanders who never eat raw bananas - they cook them!
I'm still half-asleep, so it doesn't occur to me that I should appreciate the company of a cheerful and well-off Belarusian citizen - for my own sake, at least, because wouldn't it be nice to end this long journey through the westernmost splinter of the once great Soviet Empire on a good note, brushing off all the grotesque, nightmarish visions that have been parading through my head for the past 24 hours?
An idiot, I ask the man what he thinks about the journalist exiled to the town of Zhlobin.
He frowns and replies, "Well, they criticize Lukashenko too much. They aren't being fair to him.
They deserve what they get. He is a good president. They should abide by the code of ethics, the journalists' code of ethics, and they never do."
The sweet woman chimes in, too: "Yes, they keep slamming the authorities, keep saying things that annoy the authorities, and then they are surprised they end up in jail. They do deserve it."
I am fully awake now to realize that it's better not to ask any more provocative questions. I even nod as I listen to them, as if in agreement. I hate being dragged into train arguments.
It's raining in St. Petersburg.
The mustached man and the plump woman leave the compartment first. We exchange such warm good-byes that for a second it seems as if we're going to miss each other. This affectionate phoniness is one thing I like about trains.
I have too much luggage, and as I'm trying to devise an efficient way to carry it all at once, I spot the fly. It is zooming around the table, preparing to feast on the crumbs we've left.
The fly's feast will last till a big woman with a mop arrives to clean the compartment. But no matter how diligent the cleaner is, some crumbs will still remain. There'll always be crumbs on the train, and, indifferent to the national borders it keeps crossing, the fly will live happily through whatever remains of its 20-day life.