Alon Preiss writes: I read with some amusement the supposed scandal about then-mayor Bernie Sanders’ attempt to forge a sister-city relationship between Burlington, Vermont, and Yaroslavl, USSR, during the 1980s’ glasnost/perestroika era. When I chose a city for my 1980s novel, A Flash of Blue Sky, from which a young woman might leave and travel to Moscow for an unsuccessful flirtation with capitalism, I also turned to the beautiful but provincial Yaroslavl.
Here is the way the young woman’s story begins, and how it all goes wrong.
THAT SATURDAY MORNING, wails of sorrow, somewhere in the far distance, awakened Irina, in Yaroslavl. Years ago, as a little girl, she had once vacationed with her parents in Sochi. She had grown to the age of seventeen in the intervening years, but she would never lose her affinity with the little wide-eyed girl she had been back then, a wide-eyed girl on the beach, who had impressed the adults with her emptiness.
In the kitchen, her mother was drinking a cup of coffee. She didn’t say good morning. She shot Irina an angry glance. Irina stared back at her mother, a middle aged woman in old clothes, with thick, heavy arms, gulping down her last drop of coffee.
She looked Irina over, from head to foot, made some sort of critical remark, some cutting, pointlessly cruel evaluation. Irina tried to shut her ears and her heart, but her voice broke when she responded.
“It’s not my fault,” she said. “I’ve always tried to do …” What other people expect of me. It didn’t sound right. “My best,” she concluded. “I’ve always done my best.”
Her mother didn’t reply as she marched through the front door. “Clean the apartment today,” she shouted at her daughter. Irina called after her mother: “Remember, I’m visiting Tatiana at Moscow University,” but her mother did not hear.
Irina’s mother taught children in primary school, little children who might someday grow up to be like Irina and get a job in the biggest tire factory in Russia, one of the town’s proudest current achievements. Perhaps capitalism would close the tire factory, and the children would grow up to be unemployed, or criminals. The Golden Age of Yaroslavl, after all, had ended in 1700.
Aside from cleaning the apartment, Irina’s main chore was to take the bus 60 kilometers away to Moscow every week in search of meat. Sometimes she would make a little extra money by shopping for the neighbors. In Moscow, she would pass the special markets reserved for party leaders, with the police standing outside and the gaudily dressed Communists in their foreign clothes streaming in and out, and Irina would imagine someday gaining access to one of those markets, of wearing foreign clothes and going to a special market guarded by the police, not for safety, just really for show, for the power of it all As she rushed through the doors, Irina might not even look at the regular market people, as they stood, sweating, in their queues. She would be that other person, that famous woman with the flashbulbs exploding like lightning wherever she went.
Today was a bright day, and Irina spent the morning in the park. Two weeks ago she had met Viktor, a man from Moscow; he had taken her to the Yaroslavl Circus before returning to his job in the city. But today he would meet her two blocks from her apartment building and take her away. There was a big reyv in Moscow. He was in on the organizing of the party, he said, and could introduce her to everyone there of note. He had dark features, he drove a nice car, he had a wallet thick with dollars; he didn’t boast of his mafia connections, but he smiled coyly when asked. That’s what everyone called the mob in Russia, the “mafia,” although very few Sicilians had been spotted on the street in Moscow. This impressed Irina, but she was most impressed by the attention he lavished on her, a seventeen-year-old girl who had flunked her university exams, who seemed doomed to live out her life in her mother’s apartment, or with the family of the sad local boy who had proposed marriage to her seven months ago, whom she had not yet answered. She supposed that she was still one of the prettier factory workers, for what that was worth, which probably accounted for Viktor’s interest. But she believed, rightly or wrongly, that the accumulated decade and a half of life in Yaroslavl had left her looking pale and tired, drained of the energy, confidence and magnetic beauty that would have been hers had she been born somewhere else, someplace like Paris, Amsterdam, or Las Vegas.
She fell asleep, and when she woke up, she realized she was late. She ran along the banks of the Kotorosl River, past Podbelskov Square until she reached Volzhskaya Avenue, in the heart of the old city where she and her mother lived in a two room apartment in a run-down three-story building that looked out over the river.
Viktor was sitting in his car, looking at his watch, attracting attention. In the narrow street, boys on their bicycles gathered at a safe distance, then a few scurried cautiously nearer to look at themselves in its black, polished sheen. No one dared touch the car. Old women stood in doorways, peered out of windows, hatred in their eyes.
Irina hopped into the passenger seat. Viktor kissed her lightly on the cheek. “All my neighbors are staring at the car,” she whispered. “See, look at all the old women.”
“That’s what you wanted.”
“Let’s go. It’s giving me a big ego.” As he pulled out onto the main street, she said, “Now all the neighbors will know I left with you. They’ll tell my mother. If she found out that I left with a man, she would be very angry. But when she hears them describe you, she’ll be afraid to ask about it. She won’t want to find three guys with guns on the street by our house.” That wasn’t very funny at all, Irina realized a moment later. “Don’t you need to be more secretive?” she asked him. “Can you afford to draw attention to yourself?”
“It will help,” he said. “The more people hear of me, the more people will come to me. They’ll know I know somebody. They’ll ask for favors. I’ll make deals.” He smiled. “I’m a businessman.”
Now, in broad daylight, he looked twenty-one. She laughed.
“You’re a boy,” she said.
“I know where I’m going.”
THEY LEFT THE TOWN, passing the Passky Monastery with its blindingly white towers and the golden dome of the cathedral, and he said, “It’s so beautiful.”
She replied, “I’m sick of it. Are you a religious boy?”
“I think religion will save Russia until capitalism kicks in. The people need an opiate.”
“How about opium?” she said, and he laughed.
On the road to Moscow, she rolled down the window, let her hair blow in the wind. They drove quickly by the other ancient towns in Russia’s “Golden Ring,” these two incongruous moderns in their beautiful capitalist car. Irina imagined a camera framed on her and her handsome, corrupt new boyfriend. This was like a movie, like the mobster movies that came out of Hong Kong these days.
“DO YOU STILL WANT TO VISIT TATIANA?” he asked, and she said yes. They were just entering the city of Moscow as the sun began to set, and they turned left at Vernadsky Avenue alongside a large boxy building, made up of faded blue and white blocks, a sad, ageing piece of joyless, marginally functional architecture. It was past midnight, but some Muscovites still strode about. When they stepped from the car, slamming the doors shut, a little girl, covered with dirt, peering from an alleyway, her hand outstretched. He shoved her away. “Her parents wait in the shadows,” he said. “They are probably criminals.” Irina handed some rubles to the little girl, who smiled sadly and ran off.
“How can you call anyone a criminal?” she asked him. She pushed the front door open, and they both strode past three bored looking youths, smoking in the dingy lobby.
“Are you criticizing me?” he asked, arrogant smirk on his lips. He pushed the elevator button, waiting for a whir of machinery that never came.
“No,” she said. “I’m just asking a question. You brag to me that you know all the criminals personally – ”
“It’s completely different.” He pushed the elevator button again, then, giving up, he gestured to the stairs. “Give me this building, the elevators would run. In America,” he added uncertainly, “you know, the elevators run.” In the stairwell, three floors up, they passed a teenage boy strumming on a guitar, singing a mildly subversive song by an underground performer, which had been banned ten years earlier. Several of his friends listened as he sang.
Tatiana met them in her doorway. She shared a one-room apartment with three other students. As Irina and Viktor walked in, Tatiana was talking, and lighting candles; she liked candles. She had dark black hair, and with another sort of personality she would have been beautiful; in photographs she looked like the Russian spies who always tried to seduce Cold War heroes in the old American and English films that had just made their way to Yaroslavl movie theaters and state television. Perhaps that explained Irina’s devotion to Tatiana: the latter’s celluloid quality. Irina could imagine, even now, that she and Tatiana were deep in a film noir. Shadows danced on the wall.
TATIANA DID NOT COMPLAIN about living conditions that were cramped even by Russian standards. She was majoring in international business, and predicted that she would wind up in New York, helping the Americans squander and rape Russia. Six months ago, just before heading off to university, she had bragged to her comrades in Yaroslavl that she would remain in the U.S., earning commissions. No one knew what she was talking about.
Tatiana’s roommates were trying to study, each of them installed in a separate corner.
“I know a café where we can go to talk,” she said. Irina and Viktor both nodded. “Wait one moment,” Tatiana said, and she opened her bureau drawer with a flourish and pulled out a handgun.
“Green trees,” Irina muttered dismissively, and Tatiana ignored her.
Outside, Tatiana led them down a side alley, to a wooden door with no sign above it. Conversation hummed inside. The café was dark and candle-lit, and they sat down in the corner.
Tatiana soon began her boastful talk about her future in international capitalism.
“Either you should have a gun, or some mafia friends.” She took a sip of tea. “Preferably both. I don’t think that you have any mafia friends.”
Irina shivered. “Your soul is not in place. Don’t try to impress me.”
“I’m not trying to impress you,” Tatiana replied. “It’s not my business if someone like you is impressed by someone like me.”
“Irina is very hard on the new structure of Soviet society,” Viktor said. “Irina thinks that the mafia are exactly as bad as the criminals who wait on side streets, who rape women and steal money.”
“For anyone to make a dent in Russia he needs mafia ties,” Tatiana replied self-importantly. “For any business deal to go through, the mafia needs to sign off. There’s not a government anymore. What do you think has replaced it?” She smiled. “Think about what you want to do with your life, Irina. Then make the connections.”
In school she had been a die-hard Communist, Irina remembered. A true believer. One of that lot. Her conversion to capitalism seemed to her old school-mates just another kind of extremism.
Irina shook her head. “I don’t want to be a part of that,” she said.
“Then enjoy yourself cleaning the streets in Yaroslavl,” Tatiana said. “Or maybe you can get a job working in tourism. So when the bratva come into town in their big cars, you can sell them postcards.” She laughed. “In ten years, when all the chaos is over, they won’t be criminals anymore. They will have replaced the Union’s import-export channels. They will be brokering international business deals. You always said you wanted to be in the movies, didn’t you, Irina? They’ll be giving Hollywood access to Russian locations. They’ll be making movies themselves. You’re becoming very pretty, and maybe there’s a place for you in the movies.”
Irina said angrily, “Don’t try to mock me like this. All I can hope for is that my factory won’t close down, but I’m not stupid.” She said her last statement in a tone of voice that fell far short of utter certainty.
Tatiana shook her head. “Oh, that’s right. You’ve given up your dreams. You have too many scruples. Such a shame.” She took one last sip of tea. “In a decade, they won’t be killing people anymore. That’s the most important thing. That’s what will give them legitimacy.”
“To make the United States, George Washington had to kill a lot of people, didn’t he?” Viktor agreed. “Our Union is disintegrating. It’s obvious, isn’t it? There used to be a government to distribute the food. Now there isn’t one. Without the mafia, everyone would starve while they wait for the sea weather. What they – we do is find ways to distribute the food.”
“At ten times the price,” Irina said.
“That just shows outdated thinking on your part,” he said. “In America, that would just be a free market. If anyone else can offer it more cheaply, let them do it. We have overhead we have to account for.”
He stared at her intently. She had no answer for that, and he laughed.
“Anyway, perhaps you have had a bit of education today,” Viktor said to Irina. He looked back and forth between the two young women. “I am taking Irina to a big reyv tomorrow night. This party will be a real demonstration of what Moscow’s new benefactors are doing for Russian society. There will be artists there, and writers, and the publishers of intellectual journals, and film directors and actresses. In the old days, these people couldn’t make the art they wanted. Now they are free. The Communist bosses gets their usual payoff, but even the important ministers are afraid these days to stand in the way of progress. So without the mafia, this would not happen.” He smiled. “I have keys to the building, and we can go take a look.”
Tatiana shook her head, unimpressed, but Irina said she would go along. It would delay her return to Viktor’s apartment, and his company was becoming more and more tiresome. She was even thinking about losing Viktor in the street, spending the night at Tatiana’s place, then taking an early bus back to Yaroslavl.
They walked Tatiana back to her door, and said good night. “We can walk from here,” Viktor said. They made a left turn, then a right, and the street opened up onto a wider thoroughfare. At a black building, Viktor stopped and pulled out his keys. People were still milling about on the street.
They walked into the front hallway, turned left, and entered a large room with a stage at the front, and perhaps a hundred tables in the middle of the room. In the back was a dance floor with a capacity for hundreds of young lovers. They sat down in the dark at one of the tables. “I don’t know, Viktor,” Irina said. “If you ask my family, my friends, the people who can’t afford to eat back in my town, they would all say – ”
“All they need to do,” he said, “is get a job that pays enough to eat.” He put a hand on Irina’s shoulder and looked into her eyes. “For years, Irina, government was killing people. No one could eat. People were murdered in the forest. The Uzbek starved, the Kazakhs saw their sea drained. But people – your mother and father – worked for the government. Did you tell them that they should starve instead?”
“Still – ”
“I have something to show you,” he said. He took her hand and brought her to a back room, filled with vodka and wine and other drinks.
Irina was unimpressed.
“They’ll all drink a lot tomorrow night,” she said. He handed her a key and pointed to a door in the back of the room. She took the key and walked to the door, unlocked it. Inside were rows of pistols and machine guns, stacked along the floor.
“From the Soviet army,” he called in to her.
“Is this supposed to impress me?” she asked.
“Yes.” He didn’t say anything else.
She stood in the small storage room. “Now what?” she called, but there was no reply. She called out his name. A moment later he appeared in the doorway. “I hear someone,” he said. “I really shouldn’t have brought you. Stay here while I go look.”
She stood nervously in the little room, staring at all the weapons. Some of these were from the army, she thought. She wondered which ones had killed a man. Which ones had killed children in Afghanistan? Now their country was about to collapse, the reason for the fighting in Afghanistan had ceased to exist. She recalled a young man interviewed on the street on the Soviet news the night the army pulled out of Afghanistan. “It was for a good cause,” he said, and that little tug of patriotism seemed to be enough for him. Failing is all right, if you’re doing the right thing. But now that man on the street must have learned that it had not been the right thing to do, that even the last seventy years had not been the right thing to do. Patriotism was dying in the ashes of her country. That young man on the street was watching his dreams dry up faster than the Aral sea.
She was more nervous now. She wasn’t supposed to be here, in this room, this cache of mafia weapons. Viktor was young, he was just showing off and putting them both in danger. She should run for her life, she decided suddenly. She should find a window and scurry out. But there were no windows; there was no way out. She walked into the vodka room and whispered her friend’s name.
Suddenly, the building became terribly silent, and Irina turned cold all over. The next second, when the building shuddered and shattered with a terrific hail of gunfire, she realized she had known it was coming, that the silence of impending death had been unmistakable. She froze; there were men walking through the building. She could hear them talking, laughing, their footsteps coming closer.
She hurried back into the cache-room. She put a handgun into her jacket pocket, then she scooped up two machine guns and brought them into the liquor room. She trained one on the door. When they came in, whoever they were, she would fire. What if it were her friend? she thought for just a moment. It was not a hard decision: Then he will die, and it will be a terrible mistake. He never should have brought me here. She stood in the corner, her hands sweating on the machine-gun, her pointer finger twitching on the trigger.
A heavy-set man with a Stalin mustache came into the room, squinting. Irina pushed down hard on the trigger and screamed with rage and despair and desperate fear – for a moment she heard no other sound, but then the machine-gun went wild, spraying the man with bullets. His body danced, his head exploded, scalp and brain splattered on the wall behind him. Still his body hung in the air, held up by the force of the bullets. She released her finger, and the corpse dropped to the ground in a heap.
She ran out of the open storage room, already firing, tears blinding her vision; as the blaze of bullets pounded through the hallway, a young man lifted a gun towards her, but his chest burst wide open and he was thrown six feet backwards, crashing violently against the iron door. A young man like Viktor, maybe, who liked big cars, who wanted to impress girls. Irina walked though the building, firing indiscriminately. When she reached the open air, she threw the gun into the bushes. The street was clear; people had heard the gunfire, she assumed, and headed in other directions. She ran wildly through the streets, shaking, tears streaming down her cheeks. She wanted to run far from this place of death, but she thought that was not possible, not really. As she ran, she kept her hands in her pockets. Always, her right hand clutched the handgun in her jacket pocket.
THE NEXT MORNING, Tatiana was puzzled to see Viktor’s black car still parked in front of her building. When she returned from classes, it was still there. Two men in big suits were standing on the driver’s side, trying their keys. Tatiana stopped for a moment and watched them, but one looked up and warned her away. She quickly vanished into her apartment building. By the evening, when she went out to meet some friends for dinner, the car was gone.