Katia Kopovich, Autobiography

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From “Three Samizdat Winters” by Katia Kapovich, an autobiographical account in the style of a Künstlerroman of Kapovich’s youth in Russia’s former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic

 

I entered the bedroom I that shared with Larissa, lay down on the plaid-covered low bed, and began to scrutinize the ceiling. As I did this, I asked myself what I was going to do about all of it: about love, and poetry, about my dad being in jail, mom’s heartaches, and the problems she was already having at work because of my reputation. Problems was putting it mildly. She had been summoned to the first section, a bureaucratic euphemism for the Soviet KGB department. But my mom is tough and does everything the right way. Eventually we would locate relatives in Israel and apply to emigrate. It was Eugene I mostly worried about. Were he to say to me, Katia, this is how it is, I love you, let’s do something about it—that would be one thing. But he wasn’t saying anything of the sort. Apart from the inopportune, out-of-place proposal to “get married,” he never mentioned “us.” I recalled the clichéd joke: “Not now, silly, we’re at war!” War indeed: à la guerre comme à la guerre. He’s only twenty, and frightening things are already happening to him, I thought to myself. He has no time for you and your love.

            At that moment Andrei entered the room a second time with a summons to the table.

            “Which table, the one in the kitchen?” I asked. He shrugged and exited.

 

            I’ll interrupt my narrative for a minute here to say a couple of words about something else. Namely, about why I bothered to write all this down in the first place. What is the point of describing cops, KGB agents, and provincial boys playing at being dissidents? What is the point of lavishing attention on the minutiae of those three long-ago years?

            Life is an intricate matter. I knew several people who were once brave and brilliant. In time they grew weary and faded. They wasted their bravery on squabbles with their superiors at work. As for us, life couldn’t do very much about us. It might either let us be or kill us. So enough about our lives: let me say a few words about his poetry.

            Mandelshtam says of Nikolai Aseev[1] that the latter’s poems “unwind to the extent that they are wound up.” Of all the metaphors for poetry, the spring seems to me the most accurate. Applying it (and why not?) to Eugene Khorvat’s poetry, let me say that he was in that regard the opposite of Aseev. His poems uncoiled far in excess of their windup. He commanded an extraordinary versificatory tempo. The reader reaches the finish line oblivious of having first stood at the starting line, of having moved her legs, and having thrust her arms through the air. The spring that is hidden in the line propels the runner far beyond the limitations of her muscular efforts. This is the effect that his poetry always had, and still to this day, has on me.

            But let me return to my story.

            I was awakened by a roar of voices in the kitchen. I heard Eugene’s among them and went to confirm that it was him. His back toward me, he sat with a plate of cold macaroni on his knees. He always ate very slowly. A working atmosphere reigned at the moment, a coffee pot on the stove, our Kishinev typescripts spread over the table.

            Andrei gave me a peck on the cheek.

            “Hey, watch it,” Khorvat said menacingly.

            “Mere camaraderie,” apologized Andrei. He put me in his chair and brought a copy of Gaping Heights.

            “Start reading. You’ll get a kick out of it.”

            “The first issue of North South magazine,” Eugene continued, “will include Fradis, Katia, Pane, Kaplan, Shilkov and, well, myself.”

            “What about Krivulin? What about Stratanovskii? What about Shvarts and, what’s his name, Okhapkin?”

            “I’ve nothing against it,” said Khorvat. “You’ve got their poems?”

            “Shitloads.”

            “And their consent?”

            “Why the hell do I need their consent?”

            “All right, those are details. For now, let’s make a selection from what’s available.”

            Port was opened at noon. We came up with a little game in case the KGB showed up. On the count of “one, two, three,” we had to grab the manuscripts, climb onto the windowsill, and jump out the window. With this in mind, the window in the room I shared with Larissa was left open. It being a ground floor apartment, a street bum, as drunk as a lord, climbed in through the open window from the street, and fell asleep on the rag next to our bed. We did not discover him until the morning. He failed to say anything coherent, and himself had no idea as to the method of, and reasons for, his visit.

            Andrei would go to his office at two daily and come back with a bagful of photocopied poetry and fiction. Our fingers were black with toner from the pages. By day four, the contents of our suitcase had multiplied menacingly, and begun to spread throughout the apartment, while the magic pot kept cooking up more and more copies of typescripts.

            We called Krivulin, who replied that he wanted in. Khorvat was happy with the conversation:

            “Krivulin hinted that he can pass a copy to someone abroad.”

            Andrei felt inspired and drank no alcohol the whole day.

            “To hell with the booze. The mock-up has to be ready the day after tomorrow. Gene, you’ll come with me to my workplace, and we’ll do us a hell of a copying job.”

            Two days later, by evening time, we had a mockup of our first issue of North South in our hands. We had guests as well: the hairdresser Olya, and the literary scholar Anya. Andrei showed them our creation.

            “Better still, read us some poems,” Olya requested.

            “Well then, why not.”

            I refused. Khorvat agreed to read one poem, and Andrei read three. The girls liked Khorvat.

            “And now let us analyze what we have heard,” proposed Anya the literary scholar. There was a poetry society at her university where people were required to express their opinions at meetings, as if those were political indoctrination sessions.

            “I can’t analyze. I feel poetry with my skin. I feel tingles down my back if I like it,” replied Olya.

            Khorvat said that this is the best approach to art, tingles and all that. Olya promised him a free haircut.

            “I know the hair style that would look good on you.”

            “Which?”

            “Like Pushkin’s.”

            “You mean, with sideburns?”

            “What do sideburns have to do with anything?” Olya looked hurt.

            “And what does Pushkin have to do with anything?”

            “Pushkin is a classic of Russian literature,” Olya retorted. “He can serve as an example to everyone.”

            By midnight, we managed to get rid of the girls. Khorvat slept on a camp-cot in the hallway. As I lay in bed, I thought that something was bound to happen the next day, something good that would unravel all the riddles. These thoughts kept me awake a long time. Although I was sleepy, something kept pushing me back to the surface. At first I was bothered by footsteps behind the wall, then by cats caterwauling beneath our window, one of them feeling reluctant to yield something to the other. An empty can was launched at them from one of the apartments above us. They fell silent for five minutes and then resumed their caterwauling with an irrepressible vigor. But I was asleep.

 

            We had macaroni and cheese for breakfast. Andrei gathered the numbered sheets into a folder, then collected the extra copies, took them outside and dumped them in a garbage container.

            On returning inside he commanded, “Ready, set, let’s go!”

            I hid the typescript folders in the suitcase.

            “How about we all drink a little port?” enquired Andrei.

            “Nah, I don’t feel like it,” replied Eugene.

            Meanwhile Larissa was working her magic on a jezve of coffee.

            “Use a regular coffee pot, it’s much faster,” Andrei tried to reason with her.

            “When I make coffee I make coffee,” she replied, quoting Joyce.

            The doorbell rang.

            “How can one work in such conditions?” grumbled Larissa.

            Khorvat opened the door. Two cops came in, followed by a comrade in plain clothes. The latter emerged from behind their backs once the door was open. In principle, as Andrei commented later, there was no need to open the door since the cops had no warrant. On the other hand, they would have, in principle, entered anyway.

            “We have received a complaint from your neighbors about this apartment.”

            “What are they complaining about?” Andrei demanded.

            “Noise and fighting.”

            “There’s no fighting. You can see for yourselves.”

            “We’ll see about that,” said cop number two.

            And see they did. One went into the kitchen and opened the fridge for some odd reason. The other went into the bathroom and stood there for a long time, examining the contents of the cabinets.

            The KGB guy was the only one who acted in a way that made sense. He proceeded immediately to the bedroom, caught sight of the open window, and went straight for our suitcase.

            “Could you open it?”

            “Are you really going to rummage through dirty clothes?” said Larissa.

            It didn’t work: his reply was “yes.”

            “Go ahead, comrade!”

She opened the suitcase with her foot. A quantity of dirty clothing fell out of it, and landed on the floor. The rest of the suitcase contained typescripts in folders. That was bad enough, but then I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the copy of Zinoviev’s Gaping Heights that we had left on the bed. It lay at the very edge, slightly masked by the bedsheet. Larissa had noticed it too. She now stood between me and the agent who crouched over the suitcase. We looked at each other, and I sat down on the volume.

            Working silently, he leafed through the typescripts and set them aside. A volume of Mikhail Kuzmin’s poems, which he found at the bottom, dropped back into the suitcase. I tried to assume a natural pose, as if to say, I’ll just sit around here a little bit so as to keep out of your way. By all means please feel free to go on with your work, and for God’s sake take your time.

            A portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung on the wall.

            “Who’s that?” he asked.

            “My uncle,” Andrei replied unflappably.

            “He reminds me of someone, your uncle. Don’t you think?”

            “Me too.”

            “Of whom?”

            “Of my father.”

            The KGB agent knit his brows and looked at me, who was trying to take my mind off the situation and to relax my facial muscles by thinking of something unrelated. Yes, I was telling myself mentally, my dad is probably right, it is time to leave this country. But where can I go? And what about my mom?

            I suddenly heard: “Get up, please.”

            “Huh?”

            “What’s that you’ve got there?”

            “Where?”

            “Get up!” he said louder.

            I did.

            “Aha!” the agent exclaimed solemnly. “Readers of Zinoviev, I see. Where did you get the book?”

            “I brought it from Leningrad.”

            “Who gave it to you?”

            “Leonid Palanov.”

            The agent made a note in his notebook.

            In the next room Andrei was arguing with the cops.

            “No fighting, as you can see. Don’t believe our neighbors. The noise comes from the cats fighting at night.”

            “You, Eugene, are taking a walk with me,” said the KGB man, and waved to the cops. “Eugene and I are going for a walk, and you can go, comrades.”

            Khorvat moved toward the apartment door. I followed him.

            “Don’t worry, miss, he will be back soon.”

            “I’ll come with you.”

            The agent looked at me with surprise.

            “That will not be necessary,” he said, looking at me.

            I sat down on a chair in the kitchen.

            “It’s going to be all right. Khorvat knows how to act in such situations.”    

            “How?”

            “Deny everything: I was drunk, a pal gave me something to read, and I stuck it in my bag without looking.”

            “You think they’ll believe him?”

            “They’ll believe him if they want to believe him. They can’t take anything from him. He’s a street cleaner. His mother has already lost her job anyway.”

            “I didn’t know.”

            “So, there.”

            He splashed some port in a glass and ordered me to drink.

            “I’m going to wait for Eugene,” I said.

            “And I have to stop by my workplace.”

            “Yes, go. Leave the mockup there.”

            “Wait,” he suddenly remembered, “what about the plates?”

            “What plates?”

            “The photocopier plates from which I copied Gaping Heights. We’ve got to extract them, or else they’ll find them.”

            “So let’s extract them? Where is the problem?”

            “We’ll have to distract the watchman, or he might notice me from the gatehouse.”

            “I can, if need be.”

            “Then let’s go.” …

 

            Larissa opened the door. He wasn’t there yet. He came back two hours later. He said, “It’s all right,” and sank onto the sofa. I looked at him and realized everything was not all right.

            “Did they beat you up?” asked Larissa.

            “No.”

            “What happened?”

            “We talked.”

            “What did they say?”

            “They said you both have to leave within 24 hours. You’ll most likely be accompanied.”

            “And you?”

            “I have to stay.”

            None of this was easy for him. He hung his head, then picked up the out-of-tune guitar from the floor and began to pluck the strings.

            “Where’s Andrei?”

            “He went to the Pozdniakovs to hide the copier plates.”

            “What plates?”

            “From the Zinoviev photocopy.”

            “Oh, here are you tickets,” he slapped the pockets of his jeans. “I bought them for you to save you the trouble.”

            I have a significant character flaw: I don’t know how to put on a brave face and am not good at pretending that everything is all right, or at talking in an unnaturally cheerful voice, as others seem to be able to do. When I’m sad, I’m sad.

            I went to the kitchen, opened the cold water faucet, and placed my head under the rusty jet. I guess I feel a bit better, I thought, wiping my hair with a kitchen towel.

            Khorvat came in, looked at me, took my elbows:

            “Look, Katia, I’m awfully tired today. I’ll come by early tomorrow, and we’ll talk it all through. I have a plan.”

            I nodded my, face against his shoulder.

            “Everything will be fine with us,” he yelled as he descended the staircase.

            A blazing sunset poured through the entrance door. On the doorstep he looked back, but his face remained in the glare.

            I had a fleeting thought: I’ll never see him again.

 

            We were accompanied, as Eugene had predicted. A man in a grey suit materialized at the last moment. His seat was in a compartment next to ours, and he came out a few times to smoke in the vestibule, like everyone else. He didn’t bother us.

            “Eugene most likely couldn’t make it,” Larissa was trying to console me. “He has a lot of decisions to make right now.”

            “I am not saying anything,” I said.

            “You’re not saying it, but you’re thinking it.”

            “What? I’m not supposed to think now?”

            “Think or not, it makes little difference. Call him when you get home, and everything will be clear.”

            “It won’t,” I insisted.

            “Fruit butter,” Larissa chuckled. “You’re both like fruit butter.”

            The train came to a stop in the middle of the field, and remained motionless for a long time, as if deciding whether or not to continue. We could hear the sound of water being poured on the rails. Then steam was emitted, and the landscape behind the window started creeping toward the right.

            “What about you? Have you forgotten that the folks meeting us are a young lady and your former boyfriend?” I pulled the blanket over my head.

            Fradis and Svetlana were waiting for us on the platform. The train stopped.

            “Good grief, what’s the matter with her?” Larissa asked in terror.

            I took a look. “What do you mean?”

            We exited the car. The newlyweds smiled ear to ear on spotting us. Svetlana patted her belly. “I’m pregnant, that’s what’s up.”

            “And besides, we’re leaving,” announced Fradis.

            “Where will you go?”

            “To the States, to stay with Palanov.”

            “You’re leaving us?” Larisa vented angrily. “I’ll remain here alone. Khorvat will leave too. Katia will follow him. And I’ll end my days here all by myself.”

            “Everyone chooses their own path,” Fradis replied evasively.

            Svetlana intervened, “Don’t fight, let’s go celebrate this reunion.”

            “Let’s indeed, girls.”

            As if nothing has happened, I thought.

 

            While Moldova’s autumns are colorful and leafy, her winters are sludgy. They lack aesthetics and the hieroglyphs of bird paw prints on snow. Your feet tread on slaked lime. The street cleaner comes out of the door of the housing and utilities office holding a bucket of sand and wonders: There is no snow or ice to sprinkle the sand on, everything has melted of its own accord.

            Larissa’s parents had given her a color TV. There hadn’t been a single TV set among any of us until then. In the fall, Victor, Arthur, and Mikhail would come by to watch soccer. “Kipiani has gained control of the ball! He is moving fast toward the opponent’s goal!” Announcements came blasting from the TV room. I could hear the words distinctly from where I sat on the kitchen’s broad windowsill. Meanwhile, Eugene would clear his portion of the street of snow and ice daily. It was impossible to go see him because he was under house arrest.

            My dad’s trial started in December. It was a show trial.

            Excellent timing for the denouement.

 

            In November and December I was reading Joyce’s Ulyssus, and here is what I came to understand. Kipiani may very well gain control of the soccer ball, but one can’t gain control over enigma and beauty—nor over the person one loves. One can’t gain control over the crow gliding slowly above the grey wasteland behind one’s windows, above the pile of crates soaked through with snow, above the pedestrian marching with a string-bag first thing in the morning, with a milk can inside. No one and nothing can be possessed. All we can do is love and remember: Joyce his Ireland, Platonov the construction pit, and Proust the peachy cheeks of Albertine.

            I realized that the only way to gain freedom was to love, remember, and describe. This is the only form of private property that both Aristotle and Mandelshtam, philosopher and poet, recognized without argument. Then and only then would all of this be truly mine, and no one would be able to take you away from me again, my love. Nor would anyone be able to deprive me of that vision of a crow patrolling a plot of wasteland in Ryshkanovska.[2] Wherever I happen to find myself henceforth—whether in a mental institution in Kishinev, or on a stairwell landing in Cambridge—this would remain with me always. Amen.

 

            Eugene was summoned to the KGB’s Petrozavodsk office, and that very same agent told him in a friendly manner: “These are uncertain times. Brezhnev being ill, no one knows who’ll be in charge tomorrow. You’ve got two alternatives: either emigrate within a week, or you know what might happen.”

            “There can be only one alternative, by definition.”

            “Anyway, you heard me. Get your visa at 8 a.m. tomorrow at the visa office.”

            Khorvat called me from Boris Victorov’s place on Jaunary 13, 1981.

            “My dear, I am leaving.”

            “When?”

            “Tomorrow at dawn.”

            “Where to?”

            “I’ll try to remain in Europe.”

            “Is that farther away than Petrozavodsk, or closer?”

            “It’s about the same distance.”

            “Say something.”

            I wanted to say, I love you. Wait for me there. I’ll do anything to make sure we see each other soon. But instead I blurted out:

            “Do you know that that Brodsky is now in Rome, and Tsvetkov in America?”

            He did not have time to respond. Something inside the phone started screeching and whistling. A diabolical sound followed, and then a silence.

            I picked up the receiver a couple of times, but the phone failed to come back to life. Night fell fast. The sky had been blue just moments ago, and now it was the color of a wet sackcloth. I lay down on the sofa without turning on the lamp and stared out the window.

            It snows for real only once per winter in Kishinev: on New Year’s Eve, which, according to the old Russian calendar, is January 13.

 

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev

[1] A Soviet poet who was considered mediocre.

[2] An area of Kishinev.

 

Return to WordCity’s October 2020 issue…

 

Katia Kapovich is the author of ten Russian collections and of two volumes of English verse, Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004, shortlisted for England’s 2005 Jerwood Alderburgh Prize) and Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Her English language poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, The Independent, The Common, Jacket, Plume and numerous other periodicals, as well as in several anthologies including Best American Poetry 2007 and Poetry 180 (Random House, Billy Collins, Ed.)  Katia Kapovich, the recipient of the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the U.S. Library of Congress, and a poet-in-residence at Amherst College in 2007, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the recipient of the 2013 Russian Prize in the category “Short Fiction”. Also, in 2019 she received an international Hemingway Prize for her book of short stories, that includes fictionalized documentary prose.

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