This work of fiction was inspired by real events. I was in Leningrad with independent filmmaker Jack O'Connell, who had been invited to bring his film to the International Documentary Festival.
The time was late January, 1991, a little over a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the USSR, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to reform the stagnating Communist Party and the state economy by introducing glasnost ("openness"), perestroika ("restructuring"), demokratizatsiya ("democratization"), and uskoreniye ("acceleration" of economic development).
His reforms were not working. Boris Yeltsin and Anatol Sobchak, the Mayor of Leningrad, among others, had resigned from the Communist Party; Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze left his post, warning of an impending dictatorship. Vladimir Putin, formerly with the KGB in East Germany, was Deputy Mayor of Leningrad.
Money had been devalued. Old Soviets were resisting changes, hoping to keep their perks. The Soviet Union was in severe economic and political crisis.
Political matryoshkas, nesting dolls, also known as Gorby dolls, were sold at the hard currency market in Pushkin Square. Each doll was opened to reveal another Russian leader inside and seemed to be a metaphor for "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Few artists signed these dolls for fear of retribution.
I took photographs, made notes, and asked questions of my new Russian friends. Still events were puzzling. Winston Churchill once compared Russia itself to a matryoshka doll, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
My eight days in the turmoil of Leningrad began to make sense a few months later after the attempt by the conservative establishment of the Soviet military and the Communist Party to oust Gorbachev and re-establish an authoritarian central regime. This led to Gorbachev's resignation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin became the first President of the Russian Federation.
Part I, Leningrad, Russia
Sunday, January 27, 1991 through AM Friday, February 1, 1991
5:15 PM, Sunday, January 27
Kate shivered despite her bulky sweater and gabardine vest. The threadbare rug and the thin brown drapes fluttering at the window provided little insulation for Masha's living room. She picked up her audiotape recorder from the table beside the couch, her eyes shifting toward the women gathering up their belongings, about to leave. How the camera would love them. They wore no makeup-Masha had told her it was hard to come by these days-but each had striking features and glowing skin. Her lover Gilly would love them too, Kate thought. She pictured Gilly beside her (not thousands of miles away), charcoal in hand, sketching with bold, quick strokes the fleeting expressions of each. She felt happy thinking of Gilly, then sad. Don't dwell on What's Done, she told herself. Come back to the Now, Masha's flat, the brave souls she'd just met.
Masha had been a gracious hostess, her green eyes sparkling as she made introductions. "Meet my new friend Kate from America, here for the international documentary festival, where I am translator." Some smiled. Others, secretive or shy, looked away. Two young women, one blonde, the other dark-haired, sat side by side on the couch. With their nervous beauty and haunted eyes, they were the most interesting women in the room to Kate,
"Prevyet. I Nadya," the blonde one said softly, taking a cigarette Kate had offered. She looked about sixteen, with doe-like eyes, a fragile face. Her hair was elegantly done up. "Nadya mean hope," she said, looking sadder than anyone Kate had ever seen. Beside her, the thin woman with short, dark hair murmured with a tiny smile, "Svetlana. Sveta. My name mean light." Her skin was white, almost translucent. She opened her lips to speak. Kate thought she was going to say something provocative or shocking. But Masha broke the spell by calling out, "The cognac and the peanut butter are gifts from Kate," as her mother set a tray of refreshments on the oilcloth-covered table. A buzz of pleasure erupted from the women. The afternoon's activities-glasnost, sharing-began.
Kate ejected the cassette from her recorder. The sixty-minute audiotape had run through to the end. She turned to Masha, grateful for this get-together that she'd so generously arranged. "I was honored to meet your friends and I was moved that many agreed to talk for my recorder." Except for Sveta and Nadya, all had described the harshness of their lives as the tape recorder ran and, as the level of the cognac lowered in the bottle, found the courage to criticize their political leaders.
Masha brushed a strand of blonde hair from her forehead. "I think we have talked too much," she said, frowning uneasily at the tape machine as Kate slid it into the back pouch of her photographer's vest.
The women filed out, and each shook Kate's hand, murmuring "Spaceba," or "Nize to meet you." Nadya, the blonde waif with the soft brown eyes, said, "I like visit America one day." Her voice was flute-like, clear as her skin. She threw a backward, hopeful glance at Sveta before she followed the others out the door.
Sveta lingered. Kate's eyes expectantly met hers. Earlier, as they had stood in line for the bathroom she'd whispered to Kate, "We are afraid, Nadya and I. Will you help us? Here not good. The KGB have spies." Kate had whispered back, "Let's talk at my hotel."
Kate wanted to set up that meeting. Just as she stepped toward Sveta to arrange it, the young woman shook her head imperceptibly, glancing toward Irina who was slouching out from the kitchen. Kate thought Irina had left with the others, but she was still here, hovering. Irina's face seemed more lived-in than the faces of the other women. She had bold features and deep-set, mocking eyes under which were hollows, reddish-blue. Long greasy-looking bangs hung over her heavy brows.
Masha said, "I will take you now to your hotel, Kate."
"No, I will take her, on my way home," Irina insisted. "You stay warm inside and help your mother with the dirty dishes." Irina struggled into her coat, which looked expensive to Kate, brown suede with an extravagant white fur collar and fur trimmed sleeves. Quite a contrast to the faded blue sweater she wore underneath.
"My mom says you need to bundle up, Kate," Masha said. "The temperature has dropped to twenty below." Masha's mother smiled, her gold tooth gleaming, as she handed Kate a white knit scarf that looked new, never worn.
"Spaceba." Kate hugged Masha's mother. She put on her coat and looped the scarf around her neck.
Masha led the way to the elevator. The hall was dark, the walls barren, the uncarpeted floors were rough cement. Worse than a New York City project, Kate thought. And Masha's mom, a pediatrician who owned her co-op apartment, was considered one of the richer Soviets.
Masha punched the button. The mechanism groaned. "These are uncertain times. There was a rape in the elevator here not long ago. Unsolved. We can't trust police these days. In fact," Masha said, "we were surprised you came to the film festival. You must have a lot of courage."
"We weren't sure-with your situation in the Baltics, our Gulf War." Kate laughed ruefully. "I even made a will."
Irina looped her arm through Kate's. "I will protect you." Kate was surprised by her sudden friendliness. Irina had been abrasive throughout most of the afternoon. Did she want to continue their debate, communism versus capitalism?
The elevator door creakily opened. The inside was lit only by a dim bulb. As Kate and Irina stepped in, Sveta suddenly appeared, her dark eyes burning in her face, which was as white as the scarf around her head.
The elevator door closed in slow motion, with Masha waving good-bye. Kate, Sveta, and Irina descended to the ground floor lobby.
Outside, Kate pulled up her coat collar. Piles of snow lined the walks. Kate followed Irina, who hurried ahead. In the middle of the walkway, Kate turned around, looking for Sveta. She stood under the lone bulb that burned at the front of the building, a tall, slim statue, pale as marble except for her light gray coat. Had she changed her mind about talking with her? Kate wondered. Was she that afraid?
Several feet away, Irina stood at the edge of the road, waving her arms as the dark cars whisked by. "We are in luck," she shouted moments later. She was talking to someone in a mud-spattered sedan. A woman emerged from the passenger side of that same car and slammed the door hard. She clicked up the walkway in stiletto heels. She was provocatively dressed, unusual for a Russian woman. Her white fur coat gaped open showing a red silk blouse, cut low. Her face was delicate, pretty, with high cheekbones, a small pointed chin.
As Kate passed this woman, she noticed that she seemed older, her features more sharp than delicate. Her dark eyes were weighted down by black eye shadow. She was crying, mascara running down her cheeks. Make-up was scarce in Leningrad these days, but obviously not for her. Kate watched her stumble toward the apartment complex. Worried, she was about to offer to help her, but Irina called, "We have a cab," signaling Kate her way.
Irina spoke in Russian to the driver, heavy-jawed, Slavic-looking. He growled something in return. Irina said, "Spaceba. He will do it for five American dollars."About five times more than it cost Masha to bring her in a cab here to her apartment complex a few miles from the heart of Leningrad. Kate nodded, noticing once more the deep circles under Irina's eyes, gouged out as if her face was made of clay. Was she ill? Kate wondered.
Sveta came racing up. She spoke quickly. "Excuse, please, Miss Kate. I live not far from your hotel on Petrogradskaya. I come too."
Irina stiffened for a moment. A funny look crossed her face. Dismay? Relief?
"Yes," Kate said, exultant. "We need to talk-"
Sveta frowned, her eyes darting toward Irina.
The driver, a barrel-shaped man with bushy, black hair, scrambled out and opened the back door.
Irina threw a sidelong glance, a hint of a smile at the dark-jawed man. Kate had a feeling that Irina knew him. "Your friend?" Irina shook her head. Her eyes were mocking. Or were they crafty? Hard to tell, Kate decided. They were hidden so deeply within her broad cheekbones.
Irina spoke to the man. He laughed, she giggled. Sveta was smiling too. Kate realized Irina and the man were flirting.
Kate motioned for Irina to get in the car first. "Oh, no, you have company. I live in another building close by. I just want to make sure you be safe." Irina quickly walked away. The driver narrowed his eyes as he watched her leave. "Blyad," he yelled angrily.
A startled Kate looked at Sveta, whose eyebrows rose, then she shrugged, making a face. "It is the times," she said to Kate. "Everyone is-how you say?-on the edge."
The driver stood at attention beside the open door of his beige sedan. With a small bow, he indicated the car. "One of perestroika's latest model of Volga," he said in accented English.
Kate caught his measured, almost menacing glance as she slid into the back seat. Sveta, eyes downcast, sat next to Kate. The man slammed the back door shut. Sveta grabbed Kate's hand. "You will help?" she whispered. "Yes," Kate murmured with more confidence than she felt.
"Good evening, ladies," the driver said, once he was settled behind the wheel.
Not yet five-thirty, Kate thought, but already black as midnight. Beyond them, on the dark roadway, cars streaked by, flinging up brown slush that spun in the headlights of the car behind. "Hotel Leningrad, Vyborgskaya," said Kate, and handed the man a five-dollar bill, grateful to be out of the brutal cold.
Inside the car, the air was stale and smelled of sweat. Irina had called the vehicle a cab. But Kate saw no name or license number displayed. She didn't like this way of traveling, getting into a stranger's car. But according to her new Russian friends, it was done all the time.
They drove for several minutes in silence. Sveta unwrapped her scarf and ran her hand through her short, dark hair. "I learn English," she apologized, "so I come to America."
The driver rummaged around with one hand, hunting for something on the floor. The car sashayed from one side of the road to the other as he worked at twisting off the cap of a vodka bottle. He took a hearty swig.
Kate threw Sveta a worried look. She spoke to the man in Russian. Their voices rose. Sveta shrugged and whispered to Kate, "Everyone drinks. It is the only way to bear things."
The driver increased speed, passing crumbling buildings with smoking chimneys, factories perhaps. Headlights boomeranged off the white snow piled at the sides of the road.
"Kate?" Sveta said. "Is okay I call you Kate?"
"My friend Nadya and I . . . we are afraid," Sveta whispered, her eyes like molten lava. "They want to kill us. Or send us away."
"Who? Why?" Kate asked.
Sveta bit her lip. "They call us rozovaya."
"Rozo-vaya? What does that mean?"
Sveta shook her head and put a finger to her lips.
Kate mouthed, "Come to my hotel. We can talk there."
She shook her head. "Tonight no passport. They not let me in without."
"Come tomorrow." Kate asked for Sveta's phone number. Head bent, the woman searched through her purse. She scribbled on a scrap of paper and handed it to Kate.
The landscape grew more desolate, the buildings few and far between. Trees gradually came into focus. "Is he going the right way?" Kate asked. Sveta looked around, surprised. "Hotel Leningrad," she said shrilly to the driver.
Kate ducked to peer through the muddy windshield. Ahead, beyond a clump of trees. she spotted a long, low building, the windows lighted. People were inside. A sign hung on the building. Before Kate could decipher the name, they were past it.
Sveta spoke at length to the driver in Russian. He took a long pull of vodka, wiped his fleshy lips with the back of one hand, and muttered something in return. He lit a harsh-smelling cigarette, and silently drove on. Was he going to rob them?
Kate nudged Sveta, motioned that they must jump out of the car. Kate would go left, Sveta right. Kate groped for the door handle. Where was it? She searched frantically for a hidden latch, realizing, to her horror, that the back seat doors had no handles. She shrugged out of her coat and vest. With shaking hands, she fumbled in the vest's inside back pocket, switched on her tape recorder, and slipped into her vest again. Whatever happened, she'd leave a record. Thank god, she'd put in a fresh tape before she left Masha's flat.
"Take us to the hotel," Kate pleaded, flailing into her coat. "I will give you American dollars if you take us now." She dipped her hand in her coat pocket, held out three bills.
The driver laughed, said something in Russian, then snapped up the money.
"What did he say?" Kate asked.
Sveta shook her head, her hands to her face, moaning, "So sorry. Is my fault."
The car swung off the main thoroughfare and lurched down a narrow rutted road. Sveta spoke to the driver again in Russian, and he said something in return.
Kate could make out what looked like headstones on either side. They drove beyond the cemetery into a woods and stopped. Sveta spoke sharply to the man and he gave a harsh laugh.
"Do you want more money?" Kate asked him. She had more in her vest pocket but wouldn't tell him that. "Take us back. I have two hundred dollars in my room."
The man leaned over the front seat, slid his hand over Kate's cheek, roughly pushing back her hair, pulling at her earring.
She put up her hand to stop him. "Tell him my ears are pierced. I'll take the earrings out. He can have them." Quickly she removed them, dropped them into his palm. Gilly would understand-if she ever saw Gilly again. "Please let us go. Pazhalsta!"
Snow danced in the headlights which were focused on a frozen pond, its surface riddled with dark patches where the ice had broken through to the cold water beneath. Off to one side was a ramshackle shed.
Sveta spoke angrily to the man. She pleaded. He pointed at her, moving his finger in a chopping motion. Suddenly, he was quiet. He reached down, feeling around on the floor, then lifted a brown paper sack with something in it. More vodka?
Sveta screamed. He bellowed back. She grew quiet, sat still as a stone. The driver staggered out of the car, taking the package with him.
Kate's heart was thudding. What had she gotten herself into? She should never have gone to Masha's and stirred up trouble.
The man opened the back door, stuck his face into Kate's. His eyebrows, thick and black, like hairy caterpillars, almost met in the middle of his forehead. With a malevolent grin, he motioned for her to get out. Losing his balance, he steadied himself on the doorjamb and shook his head, doglike. Kate realized he was very drunk. She spotted the keys in the ignition. With a shout, she tumbled into the front seat and scrambled behind the wheel. She tried to shut the car door with one hand while pumping the accelerator and twisting the key to start the car. The motor turned over, then died. She'd flooded it.
The man grabbed Kate's arm before the door could close, and spat out a string of what must have been Russian curses. In the midst of it she heard in English, "You get what you deserve, you stupid pizda." Kate wedged herself under the steering wheel, resisting as he tugged. Now was the time to act. Oh god, was she ready for this? She'd just earned her green belt. Three more to go before she'd be ready to test for the black belt. She'd practiced in her dobok and bare feet, in street clothes and running shoes, but she'd never done the moves in slippery snow.
Suddenly she stopped struggling, wrenched the keys from the ignition, and propelled herself out of the car with all her strength, arms and legs moving in a frenzy, kicking and punching, the keys clenched in her fist, using them as brass knuckles. Attack a vital point, an eye, an ear. The man thrashed his arms about, trying to protect himself. "Hye," she yelled from the bottom of her abdomen where the chi was, the power. At the same time, she raked him with the keys, tore his cheek. He fell on one knee, cursing, holding his face.
What next? She rummaged through her brain. A crescent kick! When her leg reached its highest point, she brought it down sharply, hitting the top of his head with her heel. He collapsed.
Sveta was still huddled in the car. Kate screamed at her, "Go!"
She crawled out, looking dazed.
The man tried to get up, fell again on his side. He looked like a giant black bug thrashing in the snow.
"Sveta, come," Kate yelled, as she headed to the right.
The man was on his feet now, and had something in his hand. A gun? He threw it, and she heard it land behind her with a soft plop. It must have been a rock.
Kate lifted her legs high to navigate the deep, soft snow. Thank god, she'd worn her running shoes, not her heavy boots. "All we have to do," she yelled to Sveta over her shoulder, "is go back through the cemetery, hit the main road, then find the lighted building." Probably less than a mile away. Kate heard grunting and thrashing behind them. The man was coming after them. "You need my big Russian khui!" he roared in English. He was drunk and fat, but how fit was he? She and Sveta were ten to fifteen years younger than he was.
Kate darted into the black thicket of birch trees, fighting her way through, bumping into tree trunks. Car headlights flickered dimly through the trees like giant fireflies.
Get to the road, she told herself. Find help. Sveta was right behind her, wasn't she?
"Sveta?" she shouted. "Are you okay?"She heard a loud crack. Was he shooting? Where was Sveta?
"I okay." Sveta's hollow voice echoed back.
It was like the nightmares she often had-of running, lost and terrified. Her breath came in sharp rasps. She threw a quick look behind her, hoping to see Sveta. But if she was there, her colors, white scarf and gray coat, had blended into the trees and the snow. Don't lose your head, Kate. Get to the road. Flag down a car. Would one of them stop? The cars seemed to be whizzing by. "Sveta!" Kate called again. No answer. She must have split off, Kate thought, when I headed into the trees.
Snowflakes were falling fast. Coat flapping, scarf flying, Kate ran, trying not to fall in the ruts and slippery patches. Her hands were icy. She reached in her pocket for her gloves. It was only then that she realized she still held the keys to the car. She would have laughed if she weren't afraid her face would crack from the cold. Her coat was open. She zipped it up and tied her scarf around her neck, grateful she hadn't lost it during her acrobatics in the car. It just might save her life. She was thankful, too, that she'd taken the advice of the festival organizer to wear tights under her corduroy pants for extra warmth.
Minutes later, she burst out of the trees onto the cemetery road. Easier to run here, with the snow packed down. The road branched. She took a left, praying it was the correct choice. Her feet were numb. Her lungs ached from the icy air.
In the distance, a car whined to a start. Soon headlights surged up behind her. Was it him? He must have hot-wired the car or had a spare set of keys. She scampered off the road and hid behind a clump of trees. It looked like his car, but the windows were too dirty to see inside. Was he going to stop and search for her? The car kept going, lurching and bumping, tires squealing for purchase on the ice.
She had to find the lighted building, contact the police, tell them that Sveta might be hurt or worse. She didn't know Sveta's last name. Or Masha's. Even though Masha worked as translator for the film festival and Kate had known her, how long? Two days. It seemed they'd been friends for a long time.
Kate jogged along the pitted, slippery cemetery road, trying to hold to a steady pace while she struggled to keep her balance. She was panting, gasping for air. It hurt to breathe. She slowed to a walk. There were no sounds except her breath and the crisp crunch of her feet on the white snow. Time was a white ribbon that stretched to infinity. She had an impulse to lie down, make a snow angel as she did when she was a child. It would be like sinking into a featherbed, a giant, downy featherbed.
She shook her head violently, imagining her brain cells frozen into tiny gray bits rattling inside. She struggled to stay alert. What had actually happened at Masha's flat? She needed to go over it carefully. It might explain why she was here, in this predicament. She had told the women gathered that it was a privilege to be at their meeting at this critical time, 1991-a very exciting year in human terms. The women threw stricken looks at Masha, who spoke quickly. "Do not call it a meeting. Please. A meeting like this is not allowed." "We are an unregistered group," explained another. "We must obtain permission from the authorities to have a meeting, but we are afraid to bring attention to ourselves."
Kate said that she hoped to return after Leningrad became St. Petersburg, to make a documentary to let the world know what life was like after glasnost and perestroika. She'd pulled the tape recorder from her vest pocket. She'd asked, in case circumstances prevented her from coming back, if they'd be willing to send their messages to America to be part of her video work-in-progress, contrasting women's issues in the U.S. with those in the Soviet Union. Smiles disappeared; the women spoke Russian to Masha. Kate heard a word in English, "dangerous." She told the women the tape would be next to her always until she left the country, that their stories would be heard by members of her New York City guerrilla film class and her teacher, a star in the film world.
A plump woman said at last, "We do not want to be identified, use only our first names."
Kate stumbled on through the cemetery. The landscape shimmered with a muted radiance, benign, eerily beautiful. The trees, branches heavy with snow, drooped-hoary old men, bowing and nodding. The gravestones, covered in white fur, hulked in the starlight like slumbering bears. She imagined a sleigh filled with people, a scene like the etchings on lacquered Russian pins, happy people, scarves flying, waving from an earlier time-before the Revolution. She leaned against a gravestone, just to rest for a moment.
As she slid slowly toward the soft, furry snow she heard in her mind Sveta's worried whisper, "The KGB have spies," saw Irina's mocking eyes.