NEW YORK, RALEIGH, LONDON, AMSTERDAM
This book is dedicated to the loving memory Dr. Samuel F. Tchwenko and Christopher Nkwayep-Chando
No man is foolish as to desire war more than peace: for in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war, fathers bury their sons.
If you come across an error, rather than uprooting it or knocking it down, see if you can trim it patiently, allowing light to shine upon the nucleus of goodness and truth that usually is not missing even in erroneous opinions.
-Albino Luciani (Pope John Paul I)
The people’s hero does not only have to be someone who possesses the levers of power. It could also be anyone who brings unity, prosperity, security, peace and a sense of worthiness to his or her people. The people often elevate such a figure to the status of a revered hero with the human touch if the figure imparts a sense of oneness on a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious group, especially diverse peoples who have been fighting one another for years, generations or even centuries.
-Mathias N. Chando
No reformer is worthy of the name if he fails to be the ultimate pacesetter in his own reform drive.
An ethnically heterogeneous society without a unifying hero is bound to be torn apart by internal strife. Only someone who can work out a consensus between these diverse ethnicities, races, and creeds is truly a hero. Such a person needs to be a true disciple of peace, prosperity, unity, solidarity and justice.
-Janvier T. Chando
There is no greater dividing force in this world than self-interest.
-Michael W. Chando
Realization is born from error.
-John T. Chando
We are truly human when we live for a purpose far above ourselves, even though most people prefer to identify with an entity for the sake of belonging, thereby subjecting themselves to the spirit of collective selfishness that is only found in groups.
-Kenneth N. Chando
There is no worse way to abuse a man’s patriotism than to estrange him from his homeland—be it his ancestral or adopted land.
-Julius K. Wakam
“Ubi bebe, ibi patria vera!” (Where it goes well with me, there is my true fatherland!)
-Samuel N. Fosimondi
In the end, what matters is our faith in humanity.
Siberia is an immense, barren and boggy region with frozen rivers, marshy plains, rugged mountains and killing blizzards. It is good only as a hunting ground for fur.
-The report of a Cossack explorer to Czar Ivan V, 1684
The lord while flying over Siberia must have sneezed and dropped his most valuable pouch, thereby scattering all his treasures over this region.
-Eno Murmi, a Finno-Lettish geologist to Czar Alexander III, 1890
Other Soviet peoples have bashed Russians for being chauvinistic and overbearing. That was a mentality of the Czarist and Stalinist eras. Today, the other republics can see the mutual respect and understanding between Russians and the Turanian, Turkic and Mongolian peoples of Siberia.
Cossacks should never be considered as wholly Slavic, Turanian, Mongolian or Turkic. They are a distinct people of their own. They should be given the role of champions of unity among the diverse peoples of the Soviet Union. Their thriving harmony is glaring proof of the compatibility of one Soviet group to the other, which is something this country badly needs to stay together.
Southern Yakutia (Sakha)
In that part of Siberia known as the Russian Far East, flows the River Aldan. It is comparatively dwarfed by the Yenisei and Lena rivers, and it has been used by man far less than the giant River Amur to the south. Even so, the river was a lifeline for the idealistic young men and women who braved the ruggedness of the Russian Far East to build the railway lines and settler communities dotting that part of the Siberian wilderness.
They say the Aldan River has a forceful character in its youthful stage and that it cuts an impressive mark on the topography as it bubbles and hisses northwards down the mountains and hills, and as it flows through the marshy plains of Yakutia before joining the River Lena that snakes its way into the Arctic Ocean.
Boris Kukinovich Petrenkov finds River Aldan's unique character enthralling. His log house, which is on the left bank of the river, less than a hundred miles from its source, is a beautiful three-bedroom structure perched on a knoll. He enjoys sitting by his window in winter and basking in the sunshine, with the view of the snow-capped mountains a few miles away. He often does so in anticipation of spotting the polar fox, the almost extinct Amur tiger, the agile snow leopard, herds of northern reindeer and even the swift-footed Kulan donkey.
In summer, the valleys blossom with the luxuriant flowers, precious trees and some of the peculiar grasses of the Taiga. This is the season Boris loves the most in Southern Yakutia. He keeps an eye out for the squirrel, mink and other fur-bearing animals that scurry around under the soothing sunlight; and he often engages in bird-watching, which is a hobby he is particularly fond of. He even takes fanciful rides on a Kulan donkey or a horse every now and then, a refreshing experience per se. Sometimes, he hikes about in the mountains or accompanies herdsmen to remote areas as they tend their herds of reindeer in search of pasture. However, it is his passion for fishing that supersedes all the others. Hardly a week goes by without Boris testing his lines or nets in the River Aldan or the numerous lakes, small rivers, and streams that dot the area.
Notwithstanding the above, Boris Petrenkov's deepest love is for the people of Southern Yakutia. He visits the cottages of his peasant friends every so often for chats and other discourses, an exercise that has helped him over the years to master the tongues of the different ethnicities of the region, much to the amazement of many and the bewilderment of a few.
If his detractors regard Siberia and the Russian Far East as foreboding places to live in, Boris does not share their view. Siberia—the landmass east of the Ural Mountains that constitutes the northern half of Asia—is his enchanted kingdom.
It would be wrong to say that Boris is nothing more than a lover of nature and people. After all, he graduated from the Kazan University in 1955 with distinction as a civil engineer, and then went on to leave his mark across the Soviet Union with remarkable engineering feats that that still stand today. Yet, even his authentic devotion to the communist cause and his outstanding sacrifices in the Second World War did not land him with a distinguished political career. Boris just happens to be a selfless public figure whose profound love is for the practical works of life. In short, he is a rare blazing soul who prefers spending his time uplifting the common people to engaging in political intrigues or regaling himself in obscure offices and dachas.
At six-foot-two tall, Boris appears burly with a cupidinous face, broad nose, upright frame, unclassified complexion and wavy black hair that he rarely crops. His features give him a unique appearance, making it more difficult for anyone to determine whether he is Slavic, Turkic, Lithuanian, Turanian or any of the ethnicities of the Caucasus. In fact, he is a classic product of generations of inter-racial and inter-ethnic mixing by some of the diverse peoples of the former Soviet Union.
Boris's solemn disposition, boisterous nature, and raucous voice make it easy for a casual observer to view him as an autocrat instead of the democrat that he truly is. However, most of those who misjudged him the first time turned around and came up with different stories to tell after their second encounter with him or after engaging him again in a deeper manner. The portrayal of Boris as a classic epitome of humanity is shared by a good number of people who got close to his soul.
Boris is also a fascinating character in the sense that he possesses the Ukrainian gaiety, the Byelorussian modesty, the Cossack daring spirit, the versatility and horse riding skills of a Mongol, the augmentative spirit of a Georgian, the neatness of an Estonian, the steadfastness of a Russian, the good sense of humor of an Armenian, the easy-going nature of a Kazakh and the respect for the elderly like an Uzbek. The fact that he is an ardent believer of Soviet harmony partly explains why he feels more relaxed in a multi-ethnic group than in the company of Eastern Slavs, even though the nationality on his passport identifies him as a Russian.
While acknowledging his humaneness, some of Boris Petrenkov's friends readily admit his weaknesses too, pointing out that his unbiased and self-sacrificing nature made it difficult for him to tolerate the feeble-minded nationalists who caused the irrational upsurge of nationalism in the former Soviet republics he had adored so fiercely.
During his active days building socialism in the Soviet Union, Boris never declined assignments to work in the very distant and remote regions of the country. It should be noted that despite his unwavering commitment to making life better for the people, he was not blind to the fact that some party apparatchiks abhorred his dedication and easygoing nature. A good number of these detractors even faulted him for living below their standards and positions, and for spending too more time with the muzhiks than with the proletariat and the ruling class. These pathetic fellows just failed to understand that poor Boris never wanted to be alienated from his muzhik friends because he thought the life of the favored contradicted his views on the rightful implementation of the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin.
The sun was high in the sky and the birds were singing in the air that warm Siberian morning when Boris stepped out of the taxi at the Berkakit railway station and looked around him, only to be gripped by an upsurge of pride at the neatness of the place. Then a smile appeared on his face as if he just remembered something pleasant.
The bus that pulled up in front of him shortly after and dispatched of its passengers appeared to be in good shape too, and the two police officers chatting and laughing by their car also reflected the relaxed feeling around. Crime did not exist in their part of Russia, or so, he thought. The people did not look like they felt threatened by the police or by criminals the way Russian citizens behaved in faraway Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
One of the passengers who got off the bus was a babushka in her sixties. She looked confident in her ways as she grabbed her seven-year-old grandson's hand the moment the boy tried to step in front of her.
“Comrade Boris Kukinovich!” she called out the second she spotted Boris. Then she stopped and regarded him with a warm expression on her face.
“Zdravstvuitye, Maria Federovna! It is you in person! A great pleasure seeing you again,” Boris beamed, and then shook her hand before ruffling the boy’s hair.
It took Boris and Maria a little over ten minutes to exchange pleasantries, share opinions, and update each other on their lives and mutual friends. They even spared a few laughs with a twinge of rue in their voices. All in all, their genuine enrapture at meeting again could not be missed. He learned from her that her grandson’s name was Anton and that the boy’s mother, whom he had carried on his shoulders when she was still a child, became a mother of three a month ago. The gratified Boris promised to visit the family the following month and even agreed to take little Anton fishing in the nearby lake famous for its omul fish. By the time the old friends shook hands and parted ways, their faces were having warm and satisfied smiles on them.
A lot was on Boris’s mind when he stopped suddenly, turned around and watched the retreating figures of Maria and Anton for a moment until they stopped at a kiosk. Then he shook his head and walked away with a sweet expression on his face, feeding on his memory of her as a young woman when she first joined her husband in the Russian Far East two and a half decades ago.
Boris was about twenty-five yards away from the entrance to the railway station when he thought he heard his name. He narrowed his eyelids and tried to get a clearer view of the person. His eyes were not as good as they used to be, but he hated using his glasses. He did not need them this time because he recognized the caller right away as Nikolai Yurievich Platov, his former commander during the Second World War. Walking briskly behind the septuagenarian were his two teenage grandsons. They were wearing green Cossack costumes with black trousers, black op-cotton hats, and high felt boots.
Boris stepped forward and embraced his friend, gave the boys a hug too, and then asked them about their progress in school and life. Sergey, the oldest boy and son of a Malian father, was graduating from High School that academic year and planned to study Information Technology at the State University in Novosibirsk. Andrei, his younger brother, bore markedly Mongoloid features, especially the epicanthic fold that he inherited from his Buryak father. He told Boris of his plan to become a medical doctor and laughed when Boris asked him if he intended to specialize as a butcher. Boris waited until the brothers had stepped aside before he turned to his friend again with a smile on his face.
“I don’t believe you intend to transit Berkakit to your settlement without stopping to spend some time with us,” Nikolai said in a reproachful manner.
“Time, Comrade Nikolai. I am pressed for time. The train arrives shortly and I must get back home in time to resolve pertinent issues tomorrow. Take my words seriously. I will pay you a visit next month. It is a promise I intend to fulfill a hundred percent.”
The friends chatted awhile, laughed, joked and even brooded to the point where they were oblivious to the fact that the boys had edged away and were now by the entrance to the railway station. Then something caught Boris’s eye. Seven young lads dressed in black barged out of the building, looked at Nikolai ’s grandsons, then at one another before encircling the brothers in a military-like manner, shouting 'Russia for Russians' for no apparent reason. Boris knew what was coming and was about to open his mouth to say something about it when the hoodlums attacked.
“Skinkhedi! Britogolovie! Tam oni, Nikolai Yurievich; skinkhedi, britogolovie, britogolovie, skinkhedi, skinkhedi…skinkhedi,” Boris shouted and started running towards the attackers even before his friend knew what it was all about.
Andrei was on the ground; Sergey was aiming blows and kicks, oblivious to the pummeling and kicking that he was receiving from every corner in his effort to keep his younger brother covered. Boris kept shouting britogolovie, skinkhedi all the way to the scene of the fighting. He grabbed one of the hoodlums and started pounding him, not paying attention to what Nikolai was doing. He did not let go of the young man as the two police officers ran breathlessly to their rescue. Other men and women joined the melee from across the street and from inside the building too, so that they overwhelmed the skinheads in no time, to the point where the fellows started begging for pardon even before he considered the fight over.
Boris could not tell how long the attack lasted, but he remembered that two of the skinheads escaped and that Maria Federovna was by his side asking him if he was all right. The brothers were bruised but not alarmingly battered. Sergey was spotting a bump on the right side of his forehead. However, he declined any medical assistance, insisting instead on knowing whether his brother was all right.
“My boys are fine and strong. They are true Cossacks who just proved that they are capable of staying on their feet during a fight,” Nikolai growled in his raucous voice.
Boris Petrenkov’s flow of adrenaline was still subsiding when he heard the hissing sound of a train as it decelerated towards the station. That, plus the arrival of more noisy townsfolk, the pleading hoodlums and Nikolai’s angry rumblings about his Cossack roots disheartened Boris so much that he wished he could cry.
“This is madness, Comrade Nikolai! The skinheads speak with the Moscow accent. What is Boris Yeltsin doing to the people of Central Russia? Turning them against their own people just because they are slightly different in appearance?”
“They were saying ‘Russia for Russians’! Hmm! Don’t you find that worrisome, Comrade Boris?”
“It is not only worrisome, Comrade Nikolai! It is disturbing; it is sad, abysmal and retrogressive.”
“What do those half-wits know? They are the uncultured descendants of former serfs we could not humanize during the seventy years of the revolution. Look! See how I am built. I’m the proud offspring of Siberian Cossacks who secured Central Asia for their czars and czarinas, and who opened up the vast lands of Siberia, the part of the motherland that is going to save Russia again as it did during the Great Patriotic War.”
“Believe me, Comrade Nikolai; it would never have happened in the Soyuz Republic. Sergey and Andrei have the qualities to lead there,” Boris said with a distant look in his eyes.
“What are you talking about?”
“I must go now. The train leaves in a few minutes. Everything will be all right, Comrade Nikolai. The officers will get the other britogolovie. Take care now, my brother. I promise to talk about this and other issues with you when I get back,” Boris said haltingly, patted his friend on the shoulder, and then hurried away for the train in the platform.
Boris Kukinovich Petrenkov looked unperturbed when he learned that the train would be departing fifteen minutes later than was originally scheduled. The expression on his face spoke of a man grappling with worries that were beyond his control. Some of the people he walked past greeted him with deep respect mingled with pity as if they understood the reason behind his lackluster disposition. The only time he smiled broadly was when he helped an old babushka onto the train. Then he too boarded it for the ride to the South, taking a seat by the window.
A surge of exorbitant spirit gripped him the moment the train hissed and jerked for the journey to the settlement of Nargonyy, located a short distance from his station.
Boris thought it would make no difference if he died now. At least his dream of opening up the Taiga was alive. Still, he wished he had died a decade ago, at a time that he thought his major achievement as an engineer would advance the lives of the people of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Not only did he find the fact that the Soviet Union he had treasured all his life never made it into the next millennium abysmal, the pathetic state of decay of the republics that emerged from its demise saddened him enormously.
He leaned back in his seat and allowed his mind to reel to December 25, 1991, the day the last Soviet leader resigned. The memory forced a rueful sigh out of his lips so that he closed his eyes out of an impulse and moved his head backwards. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s resignation was the last action that confirmed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country his forefathers fought to preserve in different forms over the past centuries. He sighed again and wiped dry the moisture in his eyes that the sad reminiscence brought.
“You have failed, Boris. You have failed in your political dreams,” he mumbled to himself.
That he had failed in his political dreams was basically true. In 1970, the enthusiastic rising politician and highly skilled civil engineer rattled some communist apparatchiks by embarking on a course to revive the 1830s plan to construct a railway line from the northern shores of Lake Baikal to the pacific coast. It took him a while to convince many of his detractors to see it as a project that would open up the northern sections of Southern Siberia, improve transport facilities in the Eastern Region, create a new source of raw materials and ease up the pressure on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The far-reaching union project was intended to galvanize the peoples of the Russian Federation as well as the different nationalities and republics of the Soviet Union.
Code named BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline), this railway was to run for 3,145 kilometers and some five hundred kilometers from the Trans-Siberian line. Boris Petrenkov’s reason for calling for a countrywide participation was simple. He expected the peoples of the different republics of the Soviet Union to develop a sense of solidarity and common purpose by working together to develop the railway infrastructure, agriculture and industry of that area of Siberia and the Russian Far East. He too had looked forward to the ripple effect of that cooperation, envisaging the creation of a mosaic that would become the prototype of the new Soviet man and woman. The judicious plan to build well-appointed towns for the different peoples along future lines meant that the development of the vast BAM zone of 1,500,000 square kilometers had to be done in a coordinated manner.
On the whole, it was a huge project that required an extensive survey, canvass of political support, and the mobilization of the workforce and machinery. A smile always creased Boris’s lips each time he recalled the project's preparatory stage, especially the time that the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union designated him as its non-titular head with a wide range of powers. In his opinion, the launch was a success because it took less than four years for the brilliant project to win over a quarter of a million volunteers.
Stirred out of his thoughts by the cheerful call of his name, Boris spun around to find Taidje Khanilov, his ethnic Gilyak friend, approaching him with a smile on his face.
“Comrade Boris, I’m privileged to see you again after such a long time.”
“Come on, my friend!”
“I mean it. In this era of calamity where constancy has become a rare commodity, meeting someone you can open up your heart to is a blessing. I didn’t even realize we were in the same compartment until I heard our comrade neighbor whisper your name aloud to his friend,” Taidje said and flung his arms wide.
“I’m glad too,” Boris mumbled, got up from his seat and took Taidje in his arms. They hugged again and again, too choked up for words as they tried to say something to each other.
“Hmm!” Taidje muttered moments after.
“Comrade Taidje!” Boris called as he sat back in his seat.
Taidje took the empty seat opposite his friend’s, crossed his legs, and then smiled at him. “Yes, Comrade Boris! I can tell something was on your mind a moment ago, something you wanted to share with me.”
“You interrupted my thoughts just now.”
“I apologize for that. Still, don’t tell me you have forgotten the thought that occupied your mind before I disturbed its peace.”
Boris smiled and shook his head. “How can I ever forget the Soviet Union? I was recalling the past when I first came here to lay the foundations of this railway. Back then, our glorious Soviet Union was waxing strong as a united superpower. Today I am riding on a railway we built, ironically as a citizen of an independent country called The Russian Federation. What a joke life is making of dedicated union-nationalists or union advocates like us,” he said with a note of rue in his voice.
Taidje rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand to stop the hot tears of despair threatening to trickle out.
“Comrade Boris, life seems to be rewarding the ethnic-nationalists in what was Soviet space not long ago.”
“You are right, my friend. As of now, we appear to be the losers. I mean the civic-nationalists or better put, union-nationalists like us whose devotion and loyalty to the geo-political entity we love or came to love always transcends ethnicity, race, religion and political belief; I mean people like us who embraced an advanced ideal that focuses on the wellbeing of humanity. Today, we seem to be the ones who are out of touch with reality.”
“Boris Kukinovich, we shouldn’t dwell on the current state of affairs in the former Soviet Republics. We are witnessing an era harnessed by irrational and emotional men. Their blindness to the realities of progress, modernity, freedom and liberty is bringing everything to ruins.”
“Thank you, Comrade Taidje.”
“Believe me, Comrade Boris! We should not cloud our minds with the futile, dismal and destructive thoughts of the works of the feeble-minded. Our people were sick—sick of the Utopian notion of independence that has only brought death, destitution, hatred, and confusion.”
Boris waved his hand in the air, indicating a wish to move on to another topic.
“How’s your beautiful Yakut wife doing?”
“Comrade Boris, she is doing fine. She is fertile.”
“What do you mean by fertile?”
“Comrade Boris, she is a very fertile woman, just like a rabbit. She gave birth to our fourth child last month.”
“Congratulations!” Boris applauded and nudged Taidje on the shoulder, “Your small Gilyak population would multiply in no time if you and other more committed men start asserting yourselves in the best way possible and making it a point of giving this land a future,” he added with a smile.
Taidje blushed, “Thank you, Comrade Boris! I’m doing my best.”
“I should be concerned, though,” Boris said suddenly, shrugged, and then winked in a conspiratorial manner, “Well, can you manage that much responsibility of raising so many kids with the limited resources available, especially in a contemporary Russia that has lost its way?”
“I’m trying, Comrade Boris.”
“My point is that I’m concerned about the uncertainties plaguing our land. In fact, the changes are so many. The senseless and sensible things being introduced into our lives every day dazzle me.”
Taidje laughed meekly and rubbed his hands together. “I don’t care the direction those occupants of the Kremlin in Moscow are taking us. Their pin-headed judgments of affairs of the state and the people mean nothing to me. Do you know something, Comrade Boris?”
“Not your mind, Comrade Taidje! It changes all the time like a chameleon changes its color.”
“All I am trying to say is that those novices in the Kremlin harangue about a free market and capitalism thinking that committed socialists stand to suffer if they destroy everything associated with the old system. But they are wrong in their intentions. Our socialist solidarity was out of strength and not out of weakness. We did not fail because we were lazy and short of innovative ideas. We lost our way because we allowed uncommitted people and saboteurs into our midst. Our inclusive path allowed them to denigrate our ranks and defeat our purposes and our efforts.”
“But they won in the end. The Soviet Union is no more,” Boris said with a shrug.
“Ach, Comrade Boris! Don't you see what they are doing today? They are defying reality by imposing an alien system on us. They are doing so assuming that committed socialists would be forced to crawl and live off their handouts and soup kitchens. My desire is to show them how dynamic a socialist can be in a laissez-faire system. Mark my words, Comrade Boris! I will show them how a socialist can prosper without becoming a thief in the name of capitalism,” Taidje said scornfully.
Boris chortled. “I like your spirit, Comrade Taidje! You are the fighting type; you are a survivor, my dear friend. Believe it or not, our last Secretary General leader has started voicing your thoughts, even though he does so using words familiar to his ears. Yes, Comrade Taidje! Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev plans to create his foundation.”
“Forget about Gorbachev,” Taidje said in a voice laced with exasperation, “See how detached those renegades he allowed to power are, as they go about ruining this country. Their uncompromising policies in managing state affairs bring out only chaos and disillusionment everywhere, dragging the clear majority of our people deeper into poverty. For the sake of humanity, they are too irrational.”
Boris regarded his friend for a moment with pathetic eyes. Just then, a strange feeling overwhelmed him to the point where he started shaking his head and drumming his fingers on the arm of his seat without meaning to.
“Comrade Taidje, there is confusion everywhere in the lands that emerged from our great Soviet Union. Neighbors fight neighbors over irrational anxieties that reflect the worst of our animal instincts. I’m talking about greed and hatred here. People who for ages were living peacefully together are now at each other’s throats. Demagogues are the rising stars of the day. Former Soviet citizens who never wavered in their dedication to the motherland now find themselves deprived of rights to lands they were born in or call home. New confusions are arising every day, yet there are no remedies in sight.”
Taidje regarded Boris quizzically for a moment, shook his head, and then sighed. “Comrade Boris must have been in the dark while in his log house in the mountains.”
“What do you mean? How was I in the dark?”
“I am talking about the meeting in Turkmenistan.”
“What meeting in Turkmenistan?”
“It is obvious you have no idea about the talks they are having in Ashgabat, the capital.”
“Who is having a meeting and talks in Ashgabat?”
“Our people, Comrade Boris!”
“Are the Americans trying to win Niyazov over to their side?”
“That is not the case, Comrade Boris!” Taidje said with a laugh, “The Turkmen president is too unpredictable. No Western leader can afford to embrace him and expect to go about business as usual. A man has to turn around and look behind him all the time whenever he is dealing with Niyazov.”
“What is the meeting about?”
“I can’t say for sure, Comrade Boris. But reports from our different media all point to the fact that the leaders of the spoils of the Soviet Union are having a week of talks down there to strengthen the loose confederation that they created to replace the Soviet Union. They plan to give the central body more powers. Ach, Comrade Boris; didn’t they destroy the Soviet Union?”
Boris laughed lightly, and then slapped his thigh as if smacking a fly. “It is so obvious?”
“What is so obvious?”
“Those knuckleheads who consider themselves the heads of state of the republics that emerged from the Soviet Union they destroyed are beginning to accept the fallacy of their judgment in tearing down what was a great country. They knocked down a great superpower and created a lame duck called the Commonwealth of Independent States from its ruins. Yes, Comrade Taidje! But what good did they do to the people or even to the new republics?”
“Nothing!” offered Taidje.
“Nothing good came out of their twisted decision to destroy our flawed but great Soviet Union! Yes, Comrade Taidje! All the republics lost from the fallout of the Soviet Union, and today, even Russia stands out in history as a country undergoing peacetime demodernization. We are losing our status as a technological and manufacturing power because we allowed buffoons to lead us. Yes, Comrade Taidje! Russia is deindustrializing at a rate that risks making this land a banana republic that does not grow bananas at all because of its frigid winter. Those buffoons are yet to get over their nationalistic sentiments. Don’t you see? If they could not dwell on the common purpose that the peoples of the Soviet Union shared at the time, then what makes you think they can do so now?”
“Hmm! Comrade Boris is on to a touchy issue here! Who knows what they intend to do?”
“What are the pinheads doing any way?”
“You tell me.”
“You are likely to agree with me that they are drinking and getting drunk with rhetoric over the creation of a dysfunctional Commonwealth of Independent States when you, I and the rest of the world know the depth of their selfishness, cluelessness, and ego?”
“You are right, Comrade Boris. They deserve lengthy sentences in a mad house. Something else, Comrade Boris! They would be surprised to find that I have been commissioned to be the guard there, responsible for beating some sense into their heads.”
“I guess you would perform your duties with more relish than the porter in Chekhov’s story Ward No.6.”
“Oh, you mean Nikita! Oh, yes! But at least, I would be doing justice to a society that has been dismally abused by those fellows,” Taidje said and nodded, “Ach Comrade Boris,” he added and looked at Boris with the expression of someone with a funny thought on his mind.
“What now? What is the explanation for your mischievous smile?” Boris asked, dimming an eye at his friend.
“I was thinking. Your position isn’t different from that of the doctor in the story. I mean the doctor in "Ward No.6". He discerned it all; he saw the senselessness of the path that the authorities were pursuing; he figured out the things that needed to be done and found sense talking to a brilliant mind that society had rejected. In the end, the so-called blazers of society judged him and concluded that he deserved to be in a mad house. Why did he have to suffer such a fate? I guess his only crime was the fact that he viewed life differently. Also, he had an approach that was different from the way the others looked at problems, others who go about resolving these problems in a listless manner.”
“You might have a point there, my friend.”
“I have been told the New Russians think you are soft in the head for refusing to be a part of the scheme of grabbing state assets.”
“I’m not a thief.”
“They do not consider themselves thieves either.”
“What are they, then?”
“They view themselves as partners in Russia’s wealth creating drive.”
“You and I think so, but a good number of people do not look at things the way we do.”
“They are involved in wealth confiscation. That’s what they are doing. They are confiscating the country’s cash cows instead of creating new wealth or salvaging the failing enterprises.”
“As a matter of fact, they regard you in another light altogether—they regard you as an obstacle in their plans to control things in this region.”
“What plans do they have when they lack an understanding of how the world operates? What would they do after fleecing this region of its resources without creating sustainable ventures for its people? Abandon us here and live an affluent live in Moscow, Kiev or Saint Petersburg?”
“I don’t think so, Comrade Boris. They are likely to head to Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Athens, Venice, Liston, Miami, Tel-Aviv, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Nassau, Nicosia or even Baku. Isn’t capital flight a curse of our days?”
“Ach, Ach, Ach…ach!” Boris exclaimed, “Those at the helm of power in the republics are failures and superfluous men. Comrade Taidje, the presidents of the new republics have facilitated the emergence of a new breed of businessmen. These thieves in businessmen’s clothing are the further ruin of our lands.”
“Superfluous men they are. I strongly agree with you on that.”
“You may wonder why Boris Yeltsin and his gang in the other Republics are engaging in futile talks now. I see it as a belated move to correct their errors. Don’t you see it too? They are so shortsighted. They are even incapable of understanding the simple truth, which points to the fact that their current actions are errors in themselves.”
The friends dwelled further on the state of affairs in the lands of the former Soviet Union, and then went on to talk about their families, life and its uncertainties, and the mysterious nature of the world. They also discussed affairs in other lands— talked admiringly about the welfare system in the Scandinavian countries that they viewed as a model for other peoples, states and nations to emulate, and then pondered their thoughts aloud about the greatly altered world politics following the demise of the Soviet Union.
“Comrade Boris would be surprised to learn that I left our outstanding Soyuzgrad for Chumikan,” Taidje said suddenly.
Boris sighed and looked at his watch. An hour had passed since they left the Berkakit station. “Chumikan, Chumikan, Chumikan,” he muttered finally. “I suppose it is in your homeland.”
Taidje nodded, averting Boris’s quizzical eyes. “It is the fear, my dear comrade. It is difficult to be certain these days. It is safer to be at home.”
“But we created a new home in Soyuzgrad, an abode of serenity that is not discriminatory at all. Yes, Comrade Taidje; we have not experienced any incident of discrimination in Soyuzgrad.”
Taidje nodded in approval. “What about the attack on Comrade Platov’s grandchildren you just told me about? It is possible racist attacks like that one can spread to every corner of the lands of the former Soviet Union.”
“Hmm, my friend!”
“You might not agree with me on this.”
“All I am trying to say is that it is sometimes important for a man to know who he is, where he is coming from and be attached to his ancestral land without being an exclusionist, without being an ethnic-nationalist or simply a nationalist as people prefer to call it nowadays? Home is the last resort of refuge.”
Boris nodded too, not in acknowledgment of Taidje’s words, but in somber realization of the deep mistrust gripping the minds of the nationalities of the once-envied Soviet Union. “Perhaps you are right after all,” he said with a sigh.
“It’s a harsh reality we must not cringe from.”
Boris chortled. “It is so amusing. Where does a man like me run to? To anywhere, yet nowhere! I have portions of my blood from at least eight of our republics from the former the former Soviet Union, yet I have no retreat where I shall be fully and happily accepted, except here in Southern Siberia.”
“Then stay here with us,” Taidje cried.
“Do you think I can find happiness living my last days in one place, knowing that I’m doing so because I’m constrained?”
“Not when you love it here.”
“Please understand! Anybody can make a limited choice and be contented with it. But that’s not all about it, my friend. We attain true contentment only when we choose from our hearts the limitless options that life presents us with.”
“You sometimes prove to be difficult, Comrade Boris.”
“Don’t force me to defend myself. Hmm! Perhaps you are right in a way. Perhaps I make the conscious effort not to judge matters through prejudiced eyes. Think of the great number of union-nationalists who came to Siberia to make it the home of their hearts. Take it as an honest truth that it wasn’t just Boris Petrenkov alone. Thousands of our citizens also stood firmly behind the creation of Soyuzgrad—a union city by conviction—because it embodies the best of the souls of Soviet Union-nationalists. In fact, I even envisioned the creation of several such settlements throughout the lands of our people. Believe me, Comrade Taidje! Had it come to fruition and had I breathed the air of at least five of such settlements, then taking a ride now to the abode of the dead would be a joyful thing to do.”
Taidje nodded. “Please don’t think even for a second that I’m irrational,” he implored, “Actually, I left Soyuzgrad because of this threatening problem. My wife had a Yakut childhood admirer who is very quick with the knife. He was in Turkmenistan when we married. Comrade Boris, he returned three months ago, and threatened to obliterate my family. It is my duty to see to it that my wife and my children stay alive.”
“Huh!” Boris grunted, looking thoughtful for a moment. “Does Masha really love him?” he asked, scratching his head.
Taidje shrugged, and then shook his head as if willing himself to say something deep. “Nobody knows the real truth anymore. Certainty has become a rare and expensive commodity in the lands of the former Soviet Union. The most I can say for now is that her admirer is a demagogue who would not spare a word that would assist him in satisfying his irrational desires. He is even beginning to stir Yakut sentiments on independence.”
“I have never heard of him,” Boris stuttered.
“You have never heard of him! That shouldn’t be you, Comrade Boris.”
“I’m speaking the truth.”
“I believe you. You know nothing about the fellow because you deliberately stayed away from civilization, or life the way we know it today.”
“You missed a point, my dear friend. I took myself away from your so-called civilization because I was trying to avoid the greed virus. I don’t want to be infected by it. Your so-called civilization is a world that has fallen apart.”
“I don’t care what you say about this, Comrade Boris! Hmm! I think you know deep in your heart that I’m on your side. All I am trying to say is that we need to make adjustments to accommodate the unfolding reality. We need to find a niche.”
“Comrade Taidje, I suppose you still remember the reason why I prefer to call our settlement Soyuzgrad instead of the name it bears on the maps.”
Taidje thought about it for a moment before he brightened up and answered to his friend’s joy. “It is because of its heterogeneity. Our beautiful settlement had most if not all of the diverse peoples of the Soviet Union in it.”
Boris nodded. “Perhaps it was a dream. Still, I dreamed it with my eyes open. I thought it would be a step forward in my far-reaching ambition to create a sort of BAM America in the region. I thought at the time that Soyuzgrad would one day emerge as the capital of the multi-ethnic region.”
“Pizdyets! Your vision was far reaching. I never thought of your plans as something more than a settlement of the Russian Far East,” Taidje intoned.
“Adstoy! It was even far more than you think. My hope was to see the BAM region mature into a union republic—one where the different peoples of the Soviet Union could move into and call home without blinking an eye. Back then, I also thought we would one day create similar republics along republican frontiers throughout the Soviet Union.”
“That’s what I meant. Your plan was mind-boggling.”
“That was my vision—a vision to create a new Soviet people to be called the Union-Muzhiks.”
“The scope of your vision is certainly breathtaking. You must have canvassed political support from numerous camps,” Taidje said with a bewildered expression on his face.
Boris smiled dolefully and clenched a fist. “The last comrade who presided over Kremlin affairs endorsed one of the plans before the uncertainties of the late 1980s, the August coup and finally the demise of our great country killed the plan.”
“That man was a flop. Mikhail Gorbachev could not stop the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even though he had the full powers and the means to prevent it from happening. I feel oppressed each time I reflect on his last days in power, scarcely believing that he failed to stop the leaders of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine from signing the Soviet Union’s death warrant over bottles of vodka in Belavezha, and then waking up the next morning unconscious of their actions,” Taidje said with bitterness.
“Please don’t blame him,” Boris countered with a sad note in his voice, “He was the rare type, one of those leaders that are too advanced for their age.”
“He was a flop, short and simple.”
“Think of him as someone who became a leader half a century too early, at a time that the mentality of our people had not fully evolved. Yes, Comrade Taidje! He is in the class of leaders who perform miracles when leading rational minds. Not a people like us, my dear friend. Our people are either too angry or they are too happy. You and I know that emotions like those overwhelm reasoning.”
“You are recalling,” Taidje said.
Boris smiled ruefully and clasped his hands. “Why shouldn’t I recall?”
“Ach, ach, ach! Comrade Boris knows deep in his heart that it is not good to dwell on the past.”
“Ach, Comrade Taidje! It is obvious you won’t agree with me on this. Even so, I will go ahead and express myself. I think it is sometimes good to dwell on the past, especially when the present is so depressing and the future holds little or no certainty. The memory of past joys and achievements gives us the outlines of the path to a state of happiness. That memory is a treasure that can never be taken away from us. At least we know where we were, what we have lost, what we miss, what we really want and what more we need to add to our experiences.”
“Not on everything, though. I beg to differ with you only on the subject of Mikhail Sergeyevich.”
“He is a flop!” Taidje cried.
“I pity Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev in many ways and make the effort to comprehend his sorrows and regrets. Let me say this before you make your point.”
“Mikhail Sergeyevich would be remembered in history as the man who did the most to kill authoritarianism in the world and allowed mankind to dwell more on humanism than on ideologies for the first time in our long and turbulent history. However, the world will also remember him as the leader whose noble intentions, advanced ideas, progressive direction, and liberalizing rule brought about the demise of his country.”
“He is a whim,” Taidje said with a note of disgust in his voice.
An enigmatic smile spread across Boris’s face as he sat back in his seat. “It is people like you who make us pity him even more. What else was he supposed to do? The constitution gave the union republics the right to secede. Even our revered Comrade Lenin wasn’t altogether against the idea.”
“Please don’t go there. Comrade Lenin is way, way up there.”
“Why shouldn’t I bring Comrade Lenin into this?” Boris asked.
“Comrade Lenin had great intentions. His actions were calculated responses to the challenges he was facing at the time. He was for humanity, but he was equally humane. He made mistakes that he admitted to as errors in his quest for good judgments during life and death moments in the history of our people. His time was different, if not peculiar. And he acted out of the exigencies of the time.”
“Comrade Lenin was humane, that’s for sure. Comrade Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is like him in so many ways. Believe me, Comrade Taidje! Comrade Lenin advocated for Finnish independence years before the revolution, and today he is respected in Finland because of that. He was even against Stalin’s brutality in bringing Georgia under full Soviet control.”
“But he was strong and wise enough to determine when the general interest of the majority superseded the whims of egomaniacal nationalists.”
“I know, I know,” Boris agonized, and then sighed.
“To be candid with you, not even a single republic tried to secede from the Soviet Union while Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s predecessors presided over affairs in the Kremlin.”
“Ach! Comrade Taidje, Comrade Taidje, Comrade Taidje!” Boris muttered, shaking his head in a thoughtful manner, “That was because past Soviet leaders were intolerant to dissension. They dealt harshly with any form of disruptive nationalism. Their big sticks, and not their persuasive tongues and noble intentions, were what actually did the job of cowing potential agitators into compliance.”
“That’s how Mikhail Sergeyevich should have ruled,” Taidje cried.
“You make me sad.”
“Please bear with me on this one. Most our people do not doubt the goodness of that man’s heart. But truth be told, he lacked a certain force as a leader. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev lacked the resolve to use a stick after failing with words.”
Boris shook his head in disapproval. “He is one of those rare and gifted men with the great ability to draw from reality. Using a stick over legitimate, though irrational claims would have only aggravated the tense situation in the Soviet Union at the time.”
“He was afraid of using the stick, that’s all!” Taidje cried again.
“What if he had sent in the tanks to crush the spoilers, those who were trying to tear the Soviet Union apart? You have no idea of what the outcome would have been. Think of the disaster that befell the former Yugoslavia after its disintegration, and then multiply it by fifteen.”
“That’s a baseless assumption,” Taidje groaned this time.
Boris heaved out in exasperation, and then hit the arm of his seat. “Your judgment of him!” Boris muttered, shaking his head, “You are so wrong, Comrade Taidje! Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was an exceptional man. He talked so cleverly and proposed such good ideas that the majority of our people, who are simple-minded folks with irrational desires, could not discern his good intentions. He initiated his reforms to bring out the best of the Soviet system, correct the errors and introduce new values that would have advanced humanism and enhanced our welfare.”
“He brought about chaos and nothing else, all because he was incapable of controlling the pace of his reforms.”
“Ach, Comrade Taidje! We had chaos because we misinterpreted his intentions. Maybe his reforms were not clearly spelt out. Perhaps he allowed the worst to happen for the truth to reveal itself. Whatever the case, our people could not make the best out of his reforms. They thwarted his progressive plans in their efforts to cripple him, in their hatred and resolve to weaken the Soviet Union that millions of our compatriots fought and died for.”
“You can’t rule our people without using an iron fist. Catherine the Great or Czar Paul must have said those words. Even Ivan the Terrible began as a reformer, only to become an autocrat later in life out of necessity. We are basically a people driven by an urge to test the limits. Yes, Comrade Boris; we are extremists in our emotions. Such people cannot be led by soft men who may even be soft in the head.”
“That’s exactly the line the conservatives used in their bid to cling to power by taking advantage of the ideology they derailed. Yes, Comrade Taidje; they gave Communism a bad name by adhering to the methods of the days of Stalin,” Boris said with a nod.
“Please, Comrade Boris. Don’t feel insulted if I tell you that you are allowing yourself to be gripped by anxiety. You are evidently losing your composure,” Taidje said with a note of concern in his voice.
“Ach, I blame them,” Boris growled, threw his hands up in the air in a dejected manner, and then muttered a deep sigh, “Yes, I blame those conservatives, the Stalinists and the dumb-witted. I blame the stupid republican leaders. I also blame our people, who in their moments of feebleness betrayed the Soviet Union when they got carried away by their nationalist sentiments. I also blame people like you who give victory to the narrow-minded nationalists by not being steadfast in your love for the lands you free-heartedly called home back in the day of the Soviet Union.”
“You misunderstood me, Comrade Boris. You are wrong again, my dear friend,” Taidje cried, “I never stopped sharing your union-nationalist ideals. I’m a committed socialist in the deepest sense of the word. I’m not a prostitute in my ideas like those conservatives in black and gray suits. You know the depth of my heart; you know how flexible I am when it comes to applying the ideas of Marx and Lenin. I always factor in the changing times. I know the ideas of those geniuses are the only hope for the cheated, the discriminated, the oppressed and suppressed people of his world. Comrade Boris, don’t you think it is time to come to terms with present-day realities and accept the fact that our past leaders betrayed the noble ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin?”
“You have a point there.”
“I know I do. Am I expecting too much by asking for realism in whatever judgments we make?”
“Realism, pragmatism, free will, et cetera, et cetera. Ach my dear friend! People use those words all the time as if we shall become better human beings at the mere mention of them.”
“Comrade Boris, most of our people crave liberal socialism because it is in our true traditions and our culture to care for one another. We are concerned about our neighbors and consider the times we enjoy with other people as our best moments in life,” Taidje stuttered as he tried to put more sense into his words.
“Go ahead. I’m listening,” Boris offered.
“Now, wouldn’t you agree with me that we are instinctively a communalist people?” Taidje cried with more earnest in his voice.
“Ach, you mean liberal socialism, which never got implemented. That should be reformed communism as we all know it today.”
Taidje nodded and closed his eyes. “It is sad. It is sad. It truly is sad, Comrade Boris,” he said in a resigned tone.
“Everything around us is sad,” Boris said with a sigh.
“Perhaps things wouldn’t have become so bad had people like us with genuine intentions, with concern for others and with realistic views asserted ourselves and imposed our wills for the sake of the Soviet people.”
“You are almost beginning to sound self-righteous, my dear friend.”
“Hmm, Comrade Boris!”
“Don’t dwell on the failures of the past, and don’t allow yourself to live on your regrets.”
“No, no, Comrade Boris! I am trying to judge from it, that is all. I’m trying to revive a hope and expose the hidden light. Perhaps a time will come when our people shall realize their errors, and then decide to come together again. After all, the different nationalities of the former Soviet Union share a lot in common with one another than with others beyond our borders.”
“You mean others who care little about our interests, others who now consider our current plight as evidence that they defeated us in the cold war?”
Taidje nodded. “They don’t trust us. In fact, they don’t want us in their midst. And why should we trust them while they snub us, even though we are on our knees, begging them to become our friends?”
“Foreigners or people from the Far Abroad think former Soviet citizens have little to offer the world other than raw materials, women, and crime.”
“You know that is not true! Comrade Boris, our scientists are contributing enormously to the technological advancements we see in the West today. Israel is leaping forward because our Jews are leading their technological inventions,” Taidje quivered.
“You are right. But we lack people who can sell those points to the rest of the world.”
“Leaders you mean!”
“Comrade Taidje, our people have been hijacked by demagogues who claim to be leaders. The buffoons I am talking about are making irrational efforts to consolidate independence, dwelling on rhetoric that stress on the differences among our diverse nationalities. They are failing to build on our mutual compatibilities and our shared history and interests.”
Taidje nodded dolefully and closed his eyes. “Comrade Boris, I’m still trying to hope.”
Boris cleared his throat. “What are you saying, Comrade Taidje? Are you hoping that the disintegration virus that gripped the different nationalities of the former Soviet Union be cured soon?”
Taidje nodded. “You can tell me. You have traveled far and wide. You have met most if not all of the different peoples that resided in the lands that were within the borders of the Soviet Union.”
Boris shrugged, and then muttered a sigh. “I was always a maverick. My party comrades even called me a utopist behind my back. The truth is that none of them had the temerity to say it in my face because they dreaded my fist.”
“I remember people talking about your memorable days as an amateur boxer.”
“Yes, Comrade Taidje; I could make use of my fist back in the day,” Boris said with a smile and a proud nod.
“Are you reminiscing?”
“I don’t know what you mean. But I know for a fact that I have some memorable technical knockouts in my record. I even flirted for a while with the idea of becoming a professional boxer, that is, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, forcing me to put that thought to rest as the entire country mobilized to stop him.”
Taidje nodded again to show that he understood. “Still, I need your view on that,” he said.
“You can’t mean it. What is there for you to learn from my opinions, being the maverick some people thought I was?”
“A maverick they called you! That was because you defied their negative intentions, which they tried to justify by clinging to the laws of Marxism-Leninism, laws they had perverted for their selfish and egoistic ends. You had an outstanding mind of your own, Comrade Boris. That is why you distinguished yourself from the heartless conservatives and party apparatchiks who discredited the noble ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Every single muzhik respected your mind back in the day when Soyuzgrad held so much promise.”
Boris sighed and closed his eyes. “Ach, you bring me back to those beautiful times. Well, you can see the way I’m built. Genealogists will call me a mongrel. Hmm! That doesn’t mean a thing to me. I’m proud to say that the Boris Petrenkov sitting in front of you this very moment has several nationalities in him.”
“Count that aspect of your genetic makeup as a plus.”
“A plus you said. In other words, I can speak from within the deep reserve of their feelings.”
“Say something then, Comrade Boris,” Taidje urged with a broad smile on his face.
Boris rubbed his brows, sighed, and then shook his head. “You want to know if it is possible for our different peoples to forge their destinies together again. Well, those nationalities that stretch across Republican frontiers are the bonds that can be strengthened to reincarnate our union. These frontier muzhiks need to do something to compel their obstinate governments to budge in their divisive policies. They would have to force their governments to start engaging their brotherly neighbors in a practical manner that recognizes their shared history, culture, language and their intertwined economies.”
“You sound very hopeful, especially since you and I know that the presidents of the republics are destroying the things that our different peoples shared in common during the times of the Soviet Union as if the West will come in and fill the vacuum with new factories and infrastructure. Hmm, Comrade Boris! I might be wrong about this, but I think the West only needs us as a source of raw materials and a market for their goods.”
“Don’t blame the West all the time as if we are innocent victims as if we don’t have a hand in all the ills plaguing our lands. Look, Comrade Taidje! In life, there is a tendency among friends and even among brothers to strive to have an edge over one another. So, why don’t you expect something like that to be the case in a situation involving former enemies or opponents? That is what competition is all about. Please, let’s stop blaming others when we are responsible for failing to defend our interests.”
“You have a point there, Comrade Boris.”
“Now, let’s talk about ways of picking up the pieces of the fallout of the Soviet Union so that we can recover and catch up with the rest of the world in the race to make this world a better place for man.”
“Tell me, Comrade Boris.”
“Let’s begin with the nationalities of the Russian Federation still suffering from Boris Yeltsin’s manipulation. The citizens of Russia became disgruntled because they were made to believe that they were bearing the brunt of the sacrifice in maintaining the Soviet Union, which is one of the many reasons why many of them resented the control of the Soviet central government. Comrade Taidje, Russian citizens have come a long way. They have come to realize the important role the Soviet Union played for the Russian people. There are about thirty million people residing in the other former Soviet republics who trace their ethnic origins to the Russian Federation. That is the equivalent of about twenty percent of the population of the Russian Federation. Russia has a lot to gain from forging closer relations with her sisterly and brotherly republics, especially if Russia intends to guarantee the interest of its population living as a minority in the other republics.”
“The Near Abroad, you mean?”
“Why not call it ‘The Other Motherland’. In fact, some Russians feel a lot more at home in the other republics than in the Russian Federation. Take the case of Andrei Yeremenko―”
Boris did not complete his analysis of the situation because just then, the trained hissed to a stop at the Nargonyy station.
“Why did the train move so fast?” Taidje asked in a barely audible tone, muffled by the sound of the whistling train.
“Comrade Taidje, my dear friend! We must see each other again and talk our problems over as compatriots,” Boris offered with a note of desperation in his voice.
A wave of emotion swept over Taidje, and he nodded effusively without being conscious of it. Then he stood up and embraced his friend. “Tell me, Comrade Boris; how many of us are still left?”
“You tell me. That is a question I’m incapable of answering, for now.”
“Ach, Comrade Boris! The fact that we must separate so soon depresses me deeply. Believe me, the only time I found solace talking about the demise of our Soviet Union was during our wise discourse today. You made me see hope on the horizon. Your great ability to help people reason in a positive manner is an asset we need. Yes, Comrade Boris; you epitomize the worthiness of the Soviet Union.”
“We shall see again,” Boris promised.
“Of course, we shall spend time together in the future. As a friend and comrade, I can give myself the pleasure of baring my heart to you. I will do so because I know you won’t think I’m soft in the head.”
“You make me laugh, Comrade Taidje.”
“I’m about to leave you with an uncomfortable feeling that you think I am a renegade? I’m even haunted by a greater fear that you might one day call me a traitor to the real ideals we shared during the heyday of Soyuzgrad.”
“Why?” Boris mumbled.
“I’m baring my heart, Comrade Boris. That is all! At one point in our conversation, I thought about Stepan Bandera and wondered how different I could be from him,” Taidje said with wistful eyes and a tilted head.
Boris held Taidje’s shoulder and looked at him straight in the eye in a reassuring manner. “I understand why you had to move. We are sometimes permitted to do things that are against our conviction for the sake of serving a greater good. In your case, that greater good was your family. You may have taken your only option,” he nudged Taidje on the chest, smiled, and then rested his left hand on his shoulder again.
Taidje shook his friend’s hand forcefully, looking elated beyond words. “I’m glad Comrade Boris understands me,” he stuttered, “I must see you again. I suppose you are heading to Soyuzgrad?”
Boris nodded and lowered his head as he tried to shake off the pathetic look on his face, all the while avoiding Taidje’s concerned eyes. “Soyuzgrad is my dream, my heart, and my most cherished sweat. Where else must I go to? Maybe to…No, no, and no! It may never be realized,” he said in a rueful voice and dropped his hand from Taidje’s shoulder.
“Then expect me as your guest next Friday.”
Boris smiled. “You are a good friend. You are more like a brother,”
Taidje laughed, looking abashed all of a sudden, as he searched for the right words to convey his feelings to his friend. At length, he smiled and looked at Boris straight in the eye. “You are everything, Comrade Boris—my father, brother, friend and compatriot. You could even be a deity for us.”
“That is a blasphemy even in Shamanism,” Boris warned and laughed.
“Comrade Boris!” Taidje called, looking surprised.
Boris nodded with a smile. Then he patted Taidje on the back and picked up his bag. “I must go now,” he said and hurried out of the train.
Boris arrived in Soyuzgrad and strode home heavily clad. He was seen by a few and wasn’t recognized by anyone that night. However, a quarter of an hour after, a curious settler saw the light in his sitting room, and then decided to satisfy his curiosity by peeping through his front window. The smiling settler knocked and entered to find the expectant Boris up on his feet to welcome him.
Ivan Mekhanov, an ethnic Uighur from Kirghizstan, was elated in his gesticulations and effusive in his handshakes as he greeted Boris and patted him on the arm. Then he bombarded Boris with petty questions during the six minutes that they spent inside his home. At length, he hurried out of the house and started spreading the news around the settlement of Boris Petrenkov’s return.
Boris started receiving the settlers of Soyuzgrad less than half an hour after Ivan Mekhanov left his home. The men, women, and some children kept streaming in to welcome the founder of their settlement as if he was expected to make their evening a festive one. He exhibited genuine warmth as he received them. Even so, he sensed the tenseness about the staunch union-nationalists and was sympathetic to the scores who voiced worries and concerns about the deteriorating state of affairs in the land.
Boris’s front door stayed opened for his friends until close to midnight. In, they flocked: The Slavs—Slovaks, Sorbs, Czechs, Poles, Bulgars, Serbs, Ukrainians (little Russians), Great Russians and Byelorussians (White Russians); the Turkic peoples—Gagauzins from Moldavia, Meshkets from Georgia, Adzarians, Azeris, Chavashes, Turkmenians, Kirziks, Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Yakuts, Kazakhs, Kumyks, Uighurs, Tatars, Bashkirs, Tuvans, Karachays and Balkars. Also present were some of the little peoples of the North—the resilient Turanian nationalities that he was so protective of. Boris also accepted greetings from Georgians, Armenians, Abkhazians, Chechens, Balkars, Ossetes, Karbadinians, Ingushetians, and Cherkesses, some of the numerous minorities of Dagestan and from several other nationalities from the Caucasus. He was a lot more emotional when he received the Baltic guests—the Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians—peoples whose nations were proving to be uncompromising in their fierce nationalism. He deeply acknowledged the warm words and show of emotion from the few Jews, Germans, Greeks, Magyars, Gypsies, Kurds, Serbs, Bulgars, and Koreans—all nationalities without homelands in the Soviet Union they had strongly believed in.
The last man left Boris Petrenkov’s home in high spirits early that morning, also convinced that the time was well spent. Boris saw the guest off to the road, and then returned to the sitting room looking relieved. A sigh escaped his lips as he settled comfortably again in his divan.
He went on to listen to music from the television for a while but realized shortly afterwards that it could not elevate his spirits. So, he mixed himself a glass of milk, ferreted out an old Estonian newspaper from his pile of journals in the fir cupboard, and then returned to the divan. He must have been relaxing there for an hour or more when the cry of an owl outside jolted him. He sat up, held his breath and listened for a while. Then it crossed his mind that he did not bolt the door. He rose to his feet and was about to secure it when he thought he heard approaching footsteps outside. He stopped for a moment and strained his ears for the sound. Yes, somebody was outside. A male voice called his name, and then knocked. Boris’s mood turned anticipatory as he opened the entryway wide and welcomed the visitor in.
“Old Comrade Anton is here! I hope you don’t plan to take away the venison soup your wife brought for my sticky tongue,” Boris said as they approached the sitting room together.
Anton chuckled. “Old Comrade Boris is still his humorous self. I was wondering why she decided to purvey the best dish I have known her prepare since we married. In fact, I was wondering why she had to do it only today. It is as if she knew you were coming. And since I couldn’t imagine myself going to bed without having a full of it, I decided to come here and get some of it.”
Boris laughed too, looking bemused as he thought of a good reply. “What do you expect me to say? You see; I knew you were coming, so I got rid of the soup by storing every bit of it in my reserve tank,” he said and patted his belly.
Anton guffawed. “That clears my worries about the dream I had last night. It featured butchers who did a great job of replacing your guts with a camel’s.”
“Did you say, butcher?”
“Yes, Comrade Boris. That’s how I refer to surgeons these days, especially those that act upon their first impulse to operate. My son is studying to become a butcher too, you know.”
Boris nodded, “He told me of your little fight a year ago. You wanted him to become a Urologist.”
“The boy frightened me.”
“Don’t look at me like that. I complained about a little groin pain and your Sakharov suggested right away that I be put under the blade.”
“He was right, wasn’t he? He nudged you to have the surgery that nipped the cancer buds off your prostrate. And you had the surgery done in time for that matter. Thank God he insisted.”
“Hmm! Comrade Boris, Comrade Boris, Comrade Boris! That’s why I gave the young fellow my blessings to pursue his dream to become a surgeon. He is good, like a true butcher,” Anton said, paused, and then added, “Why am I here?”
“You tell me,” Boris growled and laughed, shaking his head as he did so.
“Truly, Comrade Boris; I came here to convince myself that you are back and safe from the harshness of Yakutia. I read in the papers the other day that a snow leopard went berserk in your area. It devoured an old man and a boy of eleven.”
“That was near my village,” Boris said somberly, “It was a bad time those days it roved free and wild. You can’t imagine our relief when we finally trapped it in a cave in the mountains, and then took its life away. Ach, Comrade Anton, what an appalling experience we all went through during those grim days that the leopard reigned and terrified the feeble-nerved.”
“You are right because almost everything is appalling, appalling, appalling! Everywhere you go in the lands of what was the great Soviet Union, almost everything is falling apart. Winter is near, but we are yet to determine if there would be enough supply of food. Our Gilyak kindred have been living with our Yakut friends and us for centuries, but there’s growing animosity today between our peoples. Tell me, Comrade Boris; what is becoming of our sense of humanity?”
Boris sighed. “We are sick. All of us are sick. We are all sick,” he muttered, shaking his head.
The friends went on to talk about the good old days when the central and eastern regions of the Soviet Union offered brave sons who fought gallantly in the Second World War, otherwise called The Great Patriotic War. They reminisced aloud about the vigor and solidarity with which their generation carried out the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country. Then their discourse drifted on to the pressing socio-economic and political problems in the lands of the former Soviet Union. It must have been about an hour and a half after midnight that Anton rubbed his eyes in a sleepy manner, and then offered to go home.
“I have a letter for you,” he said at the door, and then took out an envelope from his inner overcoat pocket.
Anton looked astonished when Boris grasped the envelope suddenly, and then turned it over. “It has been three months since I last received a mail,” Boris rasped.
Anton grunted. “You have nobody to blame for that but yourself.”
“What do you mean?” Boris asked with a distant look in his eyes.
“You promised to spend your entire vacation in your log house and the village, but was that the case? No! I checked on you three times, only to be told on each occasion that you had ventured to Yakutsk, Vilyuisk, Verkoyansk, or God-knows-where. None of the villagers could keep track of your movements. Even Nikitin, the old Nenet, was up at your mountain retreat. Now, what did they tell the quivering fellow? Hmm! He got there shortly after you had accompanied a group of Evenki herdsmen to the north.”
“I’m a busy man,” Boris mumbled.
“A busy man whose selflessness leaves everyone mortified? By the way; do you know how funny it is, each time I force myself to listen to your complaints about not receiving a mail in ages? Eno Gudanov, our Modvinian comrade, is keeping a dozen or more of your mails. This one arrived only yesterday. I took responsibility for it because he wasn’t around.”
“You are a trusted friend.”
“Of course, I consider myself your trusted friend.”
“Ech, ech, akh! Come on, young fellow! You are my friend,” Boris articulated. “Now, tell me. Where did Eno go to?”
“Not to Saransk as you may fear. He went north to Magadan to look into the situation of a fish processing plant that is likely to wind down business as if there are no hungry stomachs out there in the world that need protein from our fishes. He is still a committed union-nationalist, Comrade Boris. And he is committed to the Russian Far East.”
Boris Petrenkov’s mind went adrift again as he started mumbling to himself in a voice laced with emotion. “People still remember me. The old Union-Muzhik is still considered alive even though the union of his heart is dead.”
Conscious of the drift of Boris’s emotions, Anton bid his friend good night in a hurried manner, and then walked outside in anticipation of the inviting tranquility of his home and bed.
Back in his sitting room, Boris slumped into the divan and opened the letter. Hardly halfway through the perusal, he jumped up to his feet and shouted in an exalted manner.
“Old Comrade Andrei Yeremenko, my best friend! You finally saw the fallacy in your decision to immigrate to Israel, exactly as I cautioned. Return quickly to Soyuzgrad so that we can sing folk songs as we did in the good old days, so that we can even dance Hora as we used to do in Birobidzhan. Wise Andrei, your nimble wits will never fail to discern the short-comings of the Western world.”
That early morning, Boris, the wavering deist, said his first prayer since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And surprising enough, he sought the help of the lord in broken Yiddish.
Boris was in high spirits after he stirred awake from sleep the next morning. His reinvigorated spirits went up even further after he draped the blinds of his bedroom window and sucked in the morning sun and the familiar sights of picturesque Soyuzgrad. He kept that good mood with him as he shaved the scraggly beard off his cheeks and chin, showered, toweled himself dry, and then put on fresh clothes. He arranged a few things in the house after that while humming “The Song of the Volga Boatmen”. He carried on exercising his vocal cord even as he prepared a heavy breakfast of potato chips, omelet, fried liver, thick Cameroonian coffee, and grapes. The good mood did not escape him as he ate to a full. Then he took a nap in his divan.
The sun was overhead that morning when he stepped outside for a walk on the pleasant banks of the River Olekma. He loved wandering in the Taiga forest, especially the valleys around Soyuzgrad with their mosaic of forest types abound with larch, birch, pine, spruce and fir trees.
The Olekma River had a lot about it that animated Boris Petrenkov’s spirit. And the body of water never failed to rekindle his memories of the Ural River in its meandering flow through the lustrous plains of the northern margins of the Caspian Sea. Boris loved the Ural River city of Astrakhan and its vicinities—the area that embodied his childhood exaltations when he worked with muzhiks in a collective farm nine kilometers away.
Boris was not alone in his deep appreciation of Astrakhan and its historic past. Even his friend Andrei Yeremenko also viewed Astrakhan as the city that brought together the cultures of Slavic adventurers and Turkic nomads. He appreciated the city’s rich tales involving his pioneer forefathers who founded the surrounding Volga settlements—the base from where Slavic adventurers pushed to the margins what became the Russian empire in the east.
How he loved Astrakhan, the largest Cossack group east of the River Volga. It was on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea that European and Asiatic cultures merged to bring out a distinct Cossack way of life that people came to romanticize over the years. He rarely failed to take the opportunity to remind those who showed an interest in the subject that he considered the area as the true heartland of the new Soviets.
“Our Eastern marginal lands are the favorite retreats for our neglected peoples,” Boris moved his lips as he echoed Yemelyan Pugachev's description of the area.
Still, he was ambivalent about Pugachev, even though he agreed with the Cossack’s legacy as the vindicator of the famous Stepan Razin. His failure to end Russian feudalism and monarchism by starting a revolution from the Volga region stirred some questions in Boris Petrenkov’s mind.
Even so, Boris never doubted the words of the Cossack revolutionary, especially his dreams for the motherland. After all, America built upon its reputation as the retreat of the disfavored in the past centuries by rising to become the envy of the world. Like Pugachev, Boris came to believe that Russia’s eastern lands could one day utilize its heterogeneity just like America, a sentiment that even the last Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also shared.
“How about carving out a new autonomous republic from the northern lands of the Caspian Sea? This should encompass portions of the borderlands of Russia and Kazakhstan,” he had suggested to Gorbachev.
Boris remembered Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s assurance that the idea would be brought to fruition, and his promise to consult with the Kazakh and Russian presidents about it. The Soviet leader even went further by pledging to make the project a big all-union drive to neutralize the destructive spread of nationalism gripping the different Soviet republics at the time.
“I’m from nearby Stavropol. It is an ethnically heterogeneous city like your Astrakhan. That’s why I think you and I are ethnically blind at heart as unwavering union-nationalists,” the Soviet leader had told Boris.
“I’m glad you support the project. If you say so, I will go ahead and start assembling a diverse team to work out the details. Believe me, Comrade Mikhail Sergeyevich, we stand to gain a lot from the success of this venture,” Boris had said with an expressionless face, fighting the joy in his heart at the same time.
But nothing much came out of that talk. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev became receptively non-committal afterwards as if Boris had a hand in his plummeting popularity.
“Work very closely with Kerbalay. He is a realistic union-nationalist,” the Soviet leader had told Boris in a surprise phone call one hot afternoon, at a time that he was beginning to think that the plan could not be realized.
Boris had heeded his leader’s advice and assembled a team. They had mapped out an area for an autonomous republic from Russian and Kazakh territories. The plan was for Kazakh and Russian authorities to jointly administer the new creation for ten years before making it a full-fledged union republic. The idea was to make it a classic Soviet experiment on ethnic compatibility. A land surface of fifty-two thousand square kilometers was set aside for Soyuz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics. And more than a hundred ethnic groups were expected to live within its borders. Boris finally caved in to pressure from above to have the capital named Kukingrad in his honor.
“Boris the dreamer, Boris the dreamer,” he mumbled to himself and sighed.
He was still in a pensive mood as he paced about on the banks of the Olekma River, wondering if his senses were at their sharpest as he savored the lushness of the plant life and marveled at the sprinkling reflection of light on the rippling waters. The serenity with which the fishes swam in the waters and the sure-footedness of the small animals scurrying around uplifted his spirit even further. He engaged in sightseeing for an hour, and then took a rest by lying with his back on the scanty undergrowth shaded by some larches interspersed with Korean cedar pine trees.
Boris was drifting into slumber when the distant barks of an approaching dog forced him to sit up abruptly. He rubbed his eyes dry and threw back the strands of hair that had brushed forward on his temple.
“Old Comrade Boris,” the owner of the dog called out hoarsely.
Boris strained his eyes in the direction of the intruders as he fought with his haziness. Then he saw them—an enthusiastic Siberian husky pushing forward frantically, its owner restraining the dog by the strap and chain in a half-running manner. The dog’s master turned out to be Ivan Ivanovich Yukhanov, his ethnic Koryak friend who became popular in Kamchatka for his guided tours and research on the active volcanoes of the peninsula.
“Old Comrade Ivan still in his life form,” Boris shouted back, rose to his feet and approached his friend enthusiastically for a hug. Their bellies met thrice, and then they patted each other on the back.
“Yakutia has a magical touch on you, Comrade Boris,” Ivan said at length.
“Don’t flatter me”
“I mean it. You look stronger and younger than the last time we were together. I’m even tempted to recommend a young Yakut woman for you.”
Boris chortled. “I don’t want Nadezhda to stir in her grave. Ten years ago, while she lay dying on her sickbed from cancer that was eating her up, I promised her she would be the only woman I would ever call my wife.”
“You were fiercely loyal, that’s for sure,” Ivan said and scratched his head.
Boris smiled, nodded, and then sighed. “She was such a sweet woman. Those days we drove together in troikas and walked arm-in-arm in Gorky Park are still fresh on my mind. She often read the works of Alexander Pushkin, Sergey Esenin, and Anton Chekhov to me. I still get echoes of the sound of her voice from those wonderful moments she entertained me with the ballads of several of our nationalities, sometimes to the pleasure of even the children. She was an exceptional woman, my Nadia, the woman of my heart. She raised my taste so high that I cannot think of another woman who can measure up to half of her. The results of everything she got involved in were excellent. Ach, Comrade Ivan, she taught me to love and accept nature the way it is. Were it not for her, I would have become a man concerned only with his interest and survival like the many grim-faced apparatchiks whose disconcertment caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
“Well! What am I supposed to say?”
“I was joking about the Yakut wife for you, that’s for sure,” the visibly uncomfortable Ivan said with a gasp.
Boris laughed, and then nudged Ivan on the back of his head. “I understand you were joking,” he said, and then mused for a moment, “Ach! Besides, can our protective daughter and two sons accept an active Yakut woman for a premature octogenarian like me?”
“Be your own judge.”
“Comrade Ivan, we have to think of children too, you know! She may want to bring one, two, three, four or even more babies into this uncertain world. For all I know, Yakut women can become addicted to children when they get going. They love children, you know.”
“I meant it as a joke, Comrade Boris.”
“Huh, Comrade Ivan! As a husband, I certainly would love to give her the joy of having children of her own. “
“All I am trying to say is that a woman deserves children if she is fertile and has a man who can give it to her. Or, let’s say a woman deserves at least a child of her own to shower her bountiful love on. I say so even though I’m against the idea of a man in his seventies going down on all fours as he plays with his creeping descendant who is not even his grandchild or great-grandchild.”
“Comrade Boris!” Ivan muttered again and regarded Boris with quizzical eyes.
“Besides, how do you expect my grandchildren to use the word uncle or aunt on a baby they are older than?”
Ivan shook his head wonderingly. “You have lost me on this one, my dear friend.”
“Ha-ha…ha!” Boris laughed, “The expression on your face. I turned it around, didn’t I?”
Ivan smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. “You have not lost the gusto of life, Comrade Boris.”
“And you find life so grim that you prefer to have yours terminated right away. I had a hard time overcoming a fear that gripped me after I failed to find you in the crowd that welcomed me back home last night. I’m glad a bear didn’t devour you in Penzhino.”
Ivan guffawed and wiped his mouth. “If my end is expected to come from their claws and fangs, then I’m glad to tell you that I still have centuries to live for.”
“Say that again.”
“What else do you expect?” Ivan asked, sounding gloomy all of a sudden.
The sudden transformation in Ivan’s demeanor surprised Boris. “Well, well, well…well,” he exclaimed, not knowing what else to say.
“Comrade Boris, the bears are almost extinct in that part of the world. That’s what saddens me the most,” Ivan said at length, narrowing his brows and clenching his fists as if getting ready to pounce on an enemy.
“I know what you mean,” Boris intoned.
“There is very little order existing out there. Yes, there is very little order these days, Comrade Boris.”
“Poachers defy the laws everywhere, everyday. Poachers make a mockery of the law and act with impunity even in the great Olekminskiy Zapovednik Nature Reserve, a place you and I know is a world heritage site. In fact, they even have their rifles slung around their shoulders in broad daylight as they massacre the protected animals with the open knowledge of involved authorities. It is pathetic.”
“You are right, it is pathetic. It saddens me too,” Boris acceded.
“Yes, Comrade Boris! It is pathetic because our people know that the wideness of our soul makes it difficult for us to accommodate disorder. Yes, Comrade Boris; the Russian soul cannot cope with turbulence. With disorder comes total and complete chaos. That’s what we are experiencing today. And it has paralyzed the Russian state and all the other republics that emerged from the Soviet Union.”
“With the exception of the Baltic republics,” Boris interjected.
“I’m glad for them.”
Boris clenched his teeth in rising infuriation. “What can be done? Do we have a way out of this? These are the questions from the lips of our people every day. These are questions most of us ask in different ways.”
“And what do you think is the answer?”
“I don’t know. The most I can offer for now is that an old order is dead, taken over by a new order that is failing to mature with time. Comrade Ivan, this new order does not want a compromise with the past. We are still to witness more disorder and confusion than you have ever imagined. You can’t eliminate the idea of three generations by simple decrees.”
“You are talking politics, Comrade Boris,” Ivan cautioned.
“Hear you bicker,” Boris shot back.
“It is not advisable for forsaken muzhiks like us to delve into the subject of politics when nothing good can come out of it,”
Boris laughed meekly and sighed. “Why shouldn’t I talk politics all the time? In the past, we paid little or nothing for food, even though the price for talking politics was high. Today, we pay little or nothing for talking politics, against the price of food that has become exorbitantly high. See how life has turned things around to make a joke of us.”
The friends settled on a boulder on the bank of the river and conversed for one more hour before Ivan offered to leave with his dog.
Boris got up and watched them disappear into the Taiga with wistful eyes. At length, he sighed, made himself comfortable again under the shade of trees, and then slowly slipped into a deep slumber.
Boris was startled awake from sleep by the knocks on his bedroom window. He blinked several times, and then opened his eyes and yawned, making an effort to shake off the grogginess caused by the activities of the night before. He brushed off the discomfort as he leaped out of bed. Then he put on his robe before heading for the door. He stopped midway for no apparent reason, thought for a moment about the ridiculousness of his action, and then proceeded to the front door and opened it. Standing there, right in front of him, with his luggage in both hands and an uncertain look on his face, was his old friend Andrei Abramovich Yeremenko.
“Old Andrei Yeremenko is back from Israel! I can’t believe, I can’t believe my eyes, I can’t believe…I can’t believe it!” Boris shouted joyfully and took his friend in his arms as they bear-hugged as in the old days.
“In Israel, I’m called Nahum Ben Sharon,” Yeremenko said, threw his hands in the air and moved his head in a comical manner.
“Nahum Ben Sharon. The name sounds purely Jewish.”
“I changed my name to fit into the Israeli society.”
“Nahum Ben Sharon!” Boris muttered again and shook his head.
“I accept I’m a Jew, Comrade Boris; but I’m not a Zionist.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything or even trying to be judgmental. Come on! You can’t blame me for being a little bit puzzled, can you?”
“Then allow me to explain.”
“You don’t have to put yourself through that. Believe me, I don’t hold the name change against you at all.”
To avoid wrangling over Andrei Yeremenko’s Israeli commitments, Boris put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and beckoned him to come inside. Andrei Yeremenko stopped at the center of the sitting room and looked around, nodding his approval at the setting.
“You are practical as usual. I see you haven’t altered much around your abode since the last time I was here, except for the fact that your bookshelf looks fuller and you seem to pay more attention to Soviet artifacts now-our-days.”
“I got myself a new coffee table, a lamp shade, and a fan.”
“A fan too! Huh!”
“You know how hot the summer days in Siberia can be.”
“Your divan is the same; your journal rack is full as usual and…and. But everything is clean. Above all, the place smells of life—its joy and purpose, its accomplishment and acceptance.”
Boris regarded his friend closely for a moment, and then shook his head with a look of concern on his face. “You appear unhappy, old Comrade Andrei Yeremenko. You look more pitiful in your emotions than me.”
“What makes you think so?”
“You are my friend and more. You are like my twin. Please make yourself comfortable while I put your bags inside your room. I will get you some coffee afterwards. I need one myself if only to help me find out whether I’m dreaming about this or not.”
“I will go with you,” Yeremenko offered, grabbed the other suitcase and followed Boris into the third bedroom meant for his guests.
There was a light smile on Andrei Yeremenko’s face when they walked back into the sitting room and settled into the divan.
“Oh, the coffee!” Boris exclaimed and rose to his feet again.
“Stay here with me for a moment. The coffee will become more useful after I’m settled. Comrade Boris, you said a while ago that I looked unhappy.”
“But…but,” Boris said with a shrug, “You look different now.”
“Comrade Boris, Israel is not for me,” Yeremenko assented, and then shook his head ruefully with a sniff.
Boris had nothing to say for a moment as he fought with a sudden eruption of emotions in his bosom. When he tried to speak again, his face was not unmixed with disdain and pity.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go to Israel? I pleaded with you to stay here with us and breathe the air of our new republic as a Union-Muzhik, but you opted to leave. Now you have returned as a downcast man with regrets. What should I say after you tell me in a pathetic manner that Israel is not for you?”
“Comrade Boris, my old friend!” Yeremenko called, shaking his head pitifully, “I came back because I became convinced that if the world had only one person left who would understand me, you would be that individual. I thought you would put on your Cossack hat and discern my mind in the blink of an eye.”
“What makes you think I would understand when you, my best friend, disappeared from my life at a time that we needed each other the most, just when we were beginning to realize our dream of a new republic of muzhiks?”
“I know! I accept I was naive at the time. I deeply regret my decision to leave.”
“You deserted me,” Boris cried.
“Sentiments aside, I had to leave. It made sense at the time.”
“I left because of the uncertainty, Comrade Boris. The clamor of nationalism, the rising Jew-baiting and anti-Semitism were all threats to a Jew after the collapse of the center. I left, old comrade because I had to save my hide in a post-Soviet space gripped by random xenophobia.”
Boris laughed meekly as he sat back and rested his head on the divan. “Do you think those are unfamiliar words to my ears? Respected and staunch union-nationalist have used similar words before, in their efforts to express their loss of faith in humanitarianism, especially when it comes to our people.”
“Perhaps their words didn’t come straight from their hearts,” Yeremenko said with a note of desperation in his voice, “I returned to my ancestral homeland because I had to save my hide and the hides of my family members. I wanted to find the last resort of refuge. I wanted to let my rational bearings survive in a rapidly rising nationalistic land.”
“I have heard words like those spoken before. Comrade Andrei Yeremenko, don’t you think those are the powerful and developed traits of self-centered creatures?”
Yeremenko looked bashful as he turned his head away and sighed. “I have realized myself, Comrade Boris. That’s why I’m back—back to the dreams we shared, back to our Soyuz Republic. Don’t you get it? We are together again. We shall breathe the soothing air from the Caspian Sea; we shall wear Astrakhan coats as our forefathers did; we shall ride our favorite Akhal-Teke horses from Turkmenistan, and we shall dance folk songs with our fellow Union-Muzhiks.”
“I can see you didn’t like Israel,” Boris said, his gaze tentative on his friend.
“Israel is a beautiful country,” Yeremenko mumbled.
“Then why did you leave?”
Yeremenko shrugged. “Israel is a beautiful country all right. It is a place where nature is jealously guarded than anywhere else I know of, better than anywhere else I can think of. That notwithstanding, I can’t pretend that the way of life of the people over there doesn’t frighten. You will find anger and hatred all around you all the time, even though you and I know that the purpose of life is to nurture joy, which involves those aspects of humanity that enrich the soul. How then do you expect a man to enrich his soul in a place abound with hatred and danger?
“Hmm! Hatred and anger!” Boris mused.
“Yes, Comrade Boris. It is intoxicating.”
“The results of fear, incomprehension, and separation,” Boris said and nodded, looking thoughtful as he regarded his friend.
“Tell me, Comrade Boris! How could I be happy in a country where I take a bend to find myself face to face with a fanatical Arab brandishing a scimitar, swearing, cursing and threatening his Jewish compatriot? I move ten kilometers east of Jerusalem to find Jewish settlers walking around with their Uzi rifles slung over their shoulders. I go to a cafeteria in Beersheba and observe Falasha Jews pointing enviously at me because I have blonde hair and I’m supposed to be living affluently. I’m hated by my Arab compatriots, lukewarmly accepted by the Druzes, doubted upon by the Sabras and distrusted by Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Temanim, Sephardim and other Jews. Yes, Comrade Boris; they act that way simply because I’m from Russia.”
“I see!” Boris commented tersely as he rubbed his chin with his right thumb and index finger.
“That’s the Israel I discovered, Comrade Boris. The Druze doesn’t truly love the Jews, but he despises the ways of some of his Arab brothers a lot more.”
“You make Israel sound so complex.”
“Believe me, my dear friend! The land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is complicated. In fact, it is very disturbing. It has been brushed over by history so many times that the people can’t really tell who they are.”
“What did you fancy yourself to be while you were over there—a historian or archeologist of some sort?”
“Do not laugh at me, I implore you. Before I get back to the case of my Jewish people, I want us to delve a little into this. Who are the Palestinian Arabs?”
“You tell me. I’m a Union-Muzhik and my turf is the mighty part of the Eurasian land mass roved by the Russian soul. What incentive is there for me to complicate my life even further with a land that has never seen real peace for more than four thousand years?”
“I’m trying to engage you, that's all! I’m trying to grapple with some of the conflicts in my soul.”
“Then tell me what you have in mind.”
“Okay, Comrade Boris! Before that land became Hebrew speaking, there were other people or peoples living there. That means it took decades and even centuries for the Hebrew culture to dominate the people’s everyday way of life. The point is that non-Hebrews were assimilated over time.”
“By force, you mean.”
Yeremenko nodded. He didn’t want to argue about that. “Yes, Comrade Boris; they became the people of Israel both by coercion and by persuasion. You must have heard at some point about the history of Assyria’s invasion of the land.”
Boris nodded. “The invasion and exile of the Northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel, you mean?”
“Yes, Comrade Boris. The Assyrians conquered and moved away the northern ten tribes that constituted the breakaway kingdom of Israel. Now, I know it is impossible to move an entire people, so I am sure the Assyrians exiled the northern elites only or the northern elites mostly—that is, the wealthy, aristocratic and royal classes. I am also sure they created a new ruling class in this area from those who were not compelled to leave and from their own subjects that they introduced into the conquered territory. That is my theory of how the phenomenon of the Samaritans came about—people who identified with their Hebrew lineage but accepted the external elements in their new identity.”
“What is your point?”...