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[Undestanding Russia]
Valery Pisigin

Excerpt from: Voyage from Moscow to St. Petersburg

Translated from Russian by Jamey Gambrell


Valery PisiginWho [in Russia] hasn't heard of Alexander Nikolaevich Radishchev's "Journey from Petersburg to Moscow"? Who hasn't heard the sad fate of this first Russian revolutionary? It would be hard to find someone who hasn't. But who has read this book from beginning to end, read it so that he could actually tell you what it is about?

Our school books noted that Radishchev came up with the idea for his book during Catherine the Great's famous joumey from Petersburg to the south of Russia in 1787, although certain chapters had been written a few years earlier. The empress's journey was accompanied with extraordinary pomp and grandeur, colossal sums were spent on it, and it was then that the famous sham villages were built along Catherine's route, the ones that were later called "Potemkin villages." As is customary in these situations, court scribes - in contemporary language, official journalists - described in ecstatic terms the prosperity of the people of Russia under "the maternal scepter of the enlightened Empress." It was to this bold-faced deceit that Radishchev decided to contrast his own "journey," which coincided to a large degree with the empress's route.

He began to publish his book in January, and finished in May 1790, in a small print shop located in his own home on Griaznaia St (now Marat St.) in Petersburg. There were 640-650 copies printed altogether. Radishchev gave the first 25 copies to the book dealer Zotov, whom he knew, and a few days later - at the beginning of May - it began to be sold at Gostiny Dvor, in shops No. 15 and 16 of Cloth Row. Radishchev also sent several books to friends and acquaintances, including the poet Derzhavin. By the end of the month the first lot had been sold. A rumor spread that in Gostiny Dvor a composition was being sold that threatened the tsars with the block. The book soon ended up on Catherine's desk. She was provoked to great fury; she called the author a "rebel, worse than Pugachev" and commanded that he be immediately found and arrested. Catherine is said to have made as many as 90 comments in the margins of Radishchev's "Journey" and one of them says: "...He has no love for the tsars and where possible to kill all love and respect for them, he fastens on eagerly with rare boldness," and "places his hopes on an uprising from the muzhiks."

On the morning of June 30, Radishchev was arrested- He was interrogated in the Peter Paul fortress by the famous "whip cracker" Sheshkovsky, who had interrogated Pugachev 15 years earlier. On July 24, Radishchev was condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to ten years of exile in Siberia.

This is the short tale of "Journey from Petersburg to Moscow." But the subsequent history of the book is itself worthy of a separate publication. The book is without a doubt useful and interesting, however, it was forced on the population and placed on such a pedestal by the general educational canon for so long that no one felt anything but indifference toward it. Needless to say, this was hardly the fault of courageous Alexander Nikolaevich, although his words might have been kinder toward his ungrateful and superficial heirs. At any rate I don't know how many of them were moved to good deeds by Radishchev, but at one time many became revolutionaries thanks to him. Many fewer became travelers. Indeed, it seems that only one person repeated this journey literally, and for that matter he set off in the opposite direction and only made it to Vyshnyi Volochek, not even going halfway. But then what a traveler this was! Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin himself.

Pushkin's "journey" is, compared to Radishchev's, a mere sketch, written between December 1833 and April 1834. The chapter "Moscow" was written in January 1835. The poet's "Journey" appeared in print a few years after his death, in 1841. Even then, it was published with substantial cuts and corrections by the censor.

In October of 1833, on the eve of his journey to St. Petersburg. Alexander Sergeevich, noting that "in prison and on a journey all books are a gift of God," dropped into to see an old acquaintance, "whose library he was accustomed to using" and asked for a "book that is dull, but curious in some sense." (How pleasant to deal with Pushkin! This lightness is seductive). The friend proposed a book that was rather rare at the time, "A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow", published in 1790, and asked him to take care of it, as Pushkin thought, "in a secretive voice."

"The book, at one time causing a furor of temptation (A.S. was also seduced!) bringing down on the author the wrath of Catherine, a death sentence and exile in Siberia is now a print rarity which has lost is allure, is found by chance on the dusty shelf of a bibliophile or in the sack of a bearded peddler" - was how Alexander Sergeevich characterized Radishchev's book, which he accepted with gratitude and took with him

Although Alexander Sergeevich also noted that "the book's content is well known" nonetheless in his own article he thought is necessary to remind the reader of what it was: "Radishchev wrote several sketches, gave each of them the name of a station on the road from Petersburg to Moscow in the table of contents. In each he poured out his thoughts without connection or order."

Pushkin began reading Radishchev's book in Chernaia Griaz, a small village near Moscow: Since he was traveling in the opposite direction, he began reading the book from the last chapter and thus forced Radishchev to travel wuh him from Moscow to Petersburg.


Photo by Valery PisiginWhen I approached Valdai it was already evening. Anyone who has ever traveled this highway will agree that nature here is splendid and that driving is a real pleasure. The road heads straight as an arrow in front of you. But at the same rime, it follows the undulations of the landscape and thus kilometers of highway can be seen ahead, while the forested plateaus seem to hang like horizontal theater props. When the sun shines and a light mist hangs in the air, your head spins from the revealed expanses: ahead of you lies not one, but a multitude of horizons.

None of this, however, can be seen in the dark, and all the pleasure of driving is supplanted by the opposite feeling: you have to keep both eyes glued to the road because the section of highway just before Valdai is extremely dangerous. Our roads were not meant for driving at night and one of their most obvious drawbacks is that you can't see the highway dividing line or the stripe indicating the edge of the road. There's a serious risk of running off into a ditch at full speed, or of crossing the line and smashing into the oncoming traffic, whose headlights are blinding. It's best to avoid travel at night, and fortunately there are places to stop without worrying about your car. The hotels in Torzhok, Valdai and Novgorod have special garages.

Having avoided the perils of the road, I turned right, off the highway, crossed the railroad tracks and soon found myself in the old Russian town of Valdai, whose contours were impossible to determine at night time. I decided to put off touring the town until morning and to devote the evening to rest in my hotel room. There are always rooms available here, by the way, with hot and cold water, a bath or shower, a domestically manufactured television, and, if you need it, a phone. A room like that usually costs no more than twenty or twenty-five dollars, use of the garage included. At least, that's the way things are in Valdai. In addition, there is a bar cafe in the hotel, and if you're not too picky, it will do just fine.

On the road from Moscow to Saint Petersburg one comes across a variety of different cafes, snack bars and pubs. But of all the ones I've visited, I can vouch only for the cafe at the tourist resort Sputnik not far from Tver, and for the cafe-motel "Kolomno" twenty kilometers out of Vyshny Volochok. Pushkin like the fried meat patties in Torzhok, and at the cafe "Kolomno" the local chef does everything well, especially fried liver. I hope that other travelers will find these recommendations useful.

So, having filled out two questionnaires "in block letters" - the local authorities require this of the hotel administration - and having received my keys, I crossed the threshold of my room. A medium-size cockroach entered with me. Unlike me, however, it entered with a degree of certainty: no wonder, he was at home, after all, while I was here only for one night.

Having washed off the road with a hot shower, an amenity for which I would have forgiven the presence of wolves in my hotel room, I headed for the snack bar. It needs no description, since everyone knows what these cafes are like, with their aluminum spoons and forks, faceted glasses, oilcloths and salt cellars on the tables, noisy serving women and similarly noisy groups of men happily drinking vodka. That evening, the menu offered sausages with buckwheat kasha, which I gulped down silently. There is something alluring in these provincial hotel snack bars, in these simple roadside cafes. A kind of peaceful, unchanging atmosphere outside of time. A large woman saunters through, wiping tables with a rag; nearby there's an equally huge serving girl leaning her elbows on the counter; people sit, looking just as big, spearing meat patties or sausages on their forks, dipping the food in mustard or salt and chewing. And while they chew - they don't bother anyone, they do nothing untoward, they just stare at one spot and think about something. About what? Probably about the meat patties.

We're mentioning these perhaps not very vivid moments of our journey so that the reader doesn't over-romanticize it: yes, dear reader, we couldn't avoid hotels with cockroaches, meat patties and cafe waitresses, and everything else that is inseparable from a long trip.

Returning to my room, I decided to call home and tell everyone that I was alive and well. For this simple procedure, however, one must acquire a special chil from the porter, and then place an order for the call. The porter turned out to be a young woman about thirty. In keeping with me goals and purpose of our journey, I thought, it wouldn't be bad to talk to her, to find out if in truth "....Brazen, Valdai wenches, who have cast aside all shame stop every traveler and try to enflame lechery in me voyager..." So I grabbed my copy of Radishchev's book and, when the simple procedure of acquiring the chit came to a close, I asked the porter - let's call her Vera - what she thought about the following innocent musing of Alexander Nikolaevich Radishchev about her home town.:

"The bath houses were and still remain the place of amorous celebrations. The voyager, agreeing on his stay with a helpful old woman or young man, comes to their abode, where he intends to make a sacrifice to his adored Beloved. Night has fallen. The bath already awaits him. The voyager undresses, goes into the bath house, where he is met either by the mistress of the place, if she is young, or her daughter, or her in-law, or her neighborwoman. They rub down his exhausted limbs; wash the dirt away from him. This the women accomplish with their clothes removed, and then enflame in him a lecherous fire, and he passes the night there, losing money, health, and valuable rime from his voyage. At one time, so they say, these lustful monsters would murder the erring voyager, who was exhausted by wine and amorous feats, in order to make use of his name. I know not whether this is true, but it is true that the brazenness of the Valdai girls has diminished. And although even now they won't refuse to satisfy the desires of a voyager," here I looked judgmentally at Vera, finishing the quotation, "but the former brazenness is not to be seen."

"So how do things stand nowadays in this department? Was Alexander Nikolaevich right or wrong?" I asked

"What, wanting a taste of Valdai pretzels and wenches, are you?" Vera asked loudly, and I realized that she had read Radishchev attentively and that this wasn't the first time she'd answered this question. "Our brazenness might've diminished, but yours..."

"Now, now. No call for that. I read that quote with nothing but research in mind..."

"You men have only one thing in mind. For all occasions."

"That not true, Vera," I said very sternly, gazing honestly into her cunning eyes. "It's just that knowing what Radishchev wrote about Valdai, I want to raise the question, on the spot, so to speak. It's important to me and the readers I represent to know whether or not this is really true. If you can help us set the record straight, then that's all I need from you, and my readers will remember you with gratitude."

And then I told Vera how in the course of my trip along Radishchev's and Pushkin's route, I had become convinced more than once that the life of small towns and villages depended entirely on women, that practically all the people I'd spoken with were women who, in this difficult time, apparently out of a purely instinctive desire to save the nation, had been obliged to take on leading roles. I recalled Gorodnia, and Mednoe, and Vydropuzhsk and Vyshny Volochok.

"And this is why I'm interested in Valdai," I said. "If it hadn't been you, I would have asked another person..."

"Not some other 'person,' some other 'woman,' " Vera corrected me abrupdy. "My other shift, Irina, will be here in the morning, you can ask her."

"'Tomorrow morning' I will be long gone," said, almost complaining about my strict dependence on stem circumstance. I have to visit a lot of other places... They're already expecting me in Yazhelbitsy."

After this, Vera grew more serious and agreed to answer my questions. Apparently the fact that I knew of nearby places like Yazhelbitsy inspired a certain trust.

"Women cling to life mainly because they have children," Vera began. "What's it to a man? He comes home, lies down on the sofa and that's it He doesn't care whether there's bread in the house or not. If a kid asks for something to eat - he asks his mother. Here, in the hotel, almost all our women live alone, without husbands. In Valdai, and probably everywhere, it's easier to live alone. Because women have higher salaries, and a stable profession, and a more defined position. Women are more reliable workers: they don't jump around, they work more. For the most part men do temp work. Here they're usually drivers at the car repair factory. They haven't paid money there for a long time. And it's the same in other factories. So everything in our life falls on women's shoulders. You can't tell a child that they didn't give you your salary. Kids have to eat, wear clothes... A child goes to school - does he need breakfast? He does. And lunch and dinner. A mother will do anything to take care of her child. But only for her child. Not for a man. All the vegetable gardens here, the dachas - women do it all. Men are only interested in the botde."

"But not all of them are like that," I objected, thinking of myself.

"Maybe not all of them, but you walk down the street and it's not like there's anyone you want to stop and look at, to check out, no one you really notice - nothing like that. To be honest, they are all dirty, sloppy... Now when a woman goes to work, she tries to dress up pretty, she does her hair and tries to be attractive, even though maybe it takes all the strength she's got. Men could care less about their looks. Just as long as there's booze. So all of us here are happy we live alone, without any of these "presents". But it's a loss for the kids, of course."

"But Vera, be honest now, it's bad without a man, isn't it? After all, there are some purely physiological requirements, aren't there?" I asked timidly, turning the theme straight to Radishchev, and turning off the tape recorder, so as not to inhibit my interviewee.

"You don' i have to turn it off," said Vera, unembarrassed, "Who told you that I get along without men? Here I am, I work in a hotel and if I need a man in my life - I'll go and find one for myself. What do men do? They come around, like you did, strike up some kind of conversation, even if it's about Radishchev, then they invite you to their room, then there's the champagne... It's all the same and totally predictable. You guys think that you are the ones who are renting us, and in fact - we're renting you. I do the choosing and not the other way around, I can sit and talk, like I'm doing with you, and drink champagne, and then I'm the one who decides whether to go to bed or not. If I don't like a man, then no kind of champagne will tempt me. I'm not a child after all. But what's important for me? I'll go to a man like that for a day, an hour or two, and no one will tell me that I'm a bitch, or anything like that, the way men in families call their wives all sons of names. He'll feed me and coo at me, and tell me how wonderful and beautiful I am. Even if it's just for two hours, even if it's not sincere, at least afterwards I can live on the memories for a month or two. tf I need to - I'll find some one else. You, for instance, you're talking to me about literature, history, so you must think I'm worthy of that kind of conversation. But do you talk to your wife about stuff like this?

"Not often," I lied.

"Well, there you go. But you're talking to me. I know you're just giving me a line, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that you're talking to me about serious things and I'm interested. There's this man I know who I go out with. Not often, of course, because he has a family. But I get together with him and then I can live peacefully, no one gets on my nerves at night. When I get home from work I go to bed and can rest easy.

"Would you marry a guy like that, a good one?" I asked.

"I've had the opportunity to get married, more than once, I have a great apartment, it's all fixed up, everything is beautifully done, by a man I used to go out with, by the way. But I wouldn't agree to live with him. I don't want to bring unhappiness on a person I won't fall in love with anyway. I don't want to deceive anyone. So it's easier for me to live alone."

"What is there to do around here anyway?

"There used to be movie theaters and people went to the movies. Now everyone watches videos. There's no point in going to the movies anymore. We had a Culture Center, but it burned down..."

"When was that?" I asked swiftly, in response to the "fire" theme of our journey.

"Right around New Year's of 1995," Vera replied.

"How about that."

"They don' t know whether it was blown up or it burned down all by itself. Tomorrow you can go and take a look. There's a theater here, but I'm embarrassed to say I've never been in it, though I always mean to go. There's a discotheque for teenagers. And that's it... There used to be at least something. Most of the young kids just drink."

"And the girls, what are they into? Prostitution?" I said, returning to the initial Radishchevian theme.

"You answer me this, " Vera suddenly asked with some irritation. "What is the difference between a sl[ut] and a prostitute? Is there a difference? Can you answer that one?"

I began speaking in a serious tone about how prostitution is a profession, after all, that in fact I'd seen genuine prostitutes in Saint Denis in Paris and in the Ripperbahn in Hamburg, that they are enormous, that you can see them a mile away, and the way they dress, if you have the urge - you can't make a mistake. But that here, girls stand around on the streets and sometimes you can't really tell if they are sl[uts] or prostitutes.

"There's nothing else they can do," Vera began to explain. 'Their mothers don't have any money. Their fathers drink. And they want to dress nice. You can go right now and take a look, they're standing around the kiosks on "Drunk's Square," If they're young and pretty, a car will drive up, ask one to take a drive, they'll give her some money for makeup or something else, and that's it. And for that matter, these days the girls even like it. They have their own circle of friends, their own interests, employment, romanticism. You could die of boredom at home."

"You take their side?"

"I just don't judge them. It's you men who have brought things to the point that these girls are forced to sell themselves in order to live normally. And it's you guys who buy them. So you shouldn't go around accusing people of selling their bodies, their conscience or whatever. No one sells themselves the way you do. I can't stand politicians and all these journalists. They sell their souls, their conscience in front of everyone and nothing happens. They don't have anything else to sell. No one needs their bodies. And then you go and talk about morals a lot. A prostitute only sells her body. She keeps her soul. It's you men, when you buy her body, you give her your soul: you guys like to talk "soul to soul" and even have a little cry. What's more valuable in Christianity anyway: the soul or the body? Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, you know, and she was the first one to recognize Christ's resurrection, before any of you men did."

"But she was repentant!" I said, showing off my knowledge in this field as well.

"These girls would repent too, if they met up with Christ. But who do they get instead of him? Who can they repent to?" said Vera, and made it understood that she had to go clean up a room now.

"Go on," she said to me, switching to the familiar form. "I don't go to bed with people I talk to about stuff like this."

The village has its freedoms

It's ways and happy laws,

Like Moscow, proud and haughty.

I sat silently next to Vera for another minute (to be polite), then went and called home to tell everyone that I was just fine. As you, dear reader, can fully confirm.

* * *

Valdai is a small town located at the highest point of the famous Valdai Plateau, on the banks of a large lake, also called Valdai. On one of the islands of this lake is the Iversky Monastery, founded by Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century. Our encyclopedia tells us that Valdai was once a village called Bogoroditskoe, which belonged to the monastery, and that it was only in the mid 18th century that it became a town of the Novgorod gubeniya. Since the town stood on a important road, the main trades here were coach services, transportation, and the upkeep of lodgers. Everyone knows about Valdai's famous carriage bells, which sounded on all the roads of Russia and were celebrated in many literary works and popular songs.

A daring troika races on

Along the highway road

Valdai's famed bells on harness hung

Despondently ring out their song

The casting of church and sleigh bells here was begun at the end of the 18th century, at the bell foundry of the Usachov brothers. The town was also famed for its artistic stitching and pretzels - the very same "pretzels" that Radishchev mentions. But the encyclopedia has nothing to say on the subject of frivolous local wenches and bath houses. Apparently Valdai girls were well known just the same.

Nowadays Valdai has a population of no more than twenty thousand, and is not known for anything in particular. In recent years it has been mentioned only in connection with the curious (most likely mythical) trip of the president of Russia, who, as the press claimed, flew in to inspect the Valdai region wilh a view to possibly taking his vacation there. But, given all the other 'curiosities' of our life, this was soon forgotten.

1 don't know what others might think, but I found this town terribly depressing. Perhaps in summer or early autumn the real picture is hidden behind the leafy cover of the trees, and the extraordinary beauty of the region's nature embellishes the existing decay. But my impressions turned out to be much worse than my expectations. Having driven around the center several times, I ended up on "Freedom Square," where all of Valdai's "shuttle merchants" gather. They were setting up tents, laying out their goods - mostly brought in from Moscow - and preparing to spend the whole day on the square. There's no point in describing what they sell - it's the same everywhere, just as the "shuttlers" themselves are the same. Moreover, my eye fell immediately on the ruins that surrounded me. I was struck by the former Culture Center that Vera had told me about the previous night I began to photograph the ruins and one of the "shuttlers" trading nearby approached. He took me for a journalist and began to tell me breathlessly what had happened.

"You see that, right? It was blown up right at New Years". You see? There was a horrible explosion, it was terrible! The place was full of people. There was a discotheque for young people. And then everyone panicked. Everyone ran for the windows. Some people started grabbing things from the cloak room and throwing them out the windows. There was a lot of screaming... Some people were saving coats and things, others took advantage of the panic, grabbed them and ran off. Strangely enough, only one person died. Everyone was drunk. The policemen were drunk, and the fire fighters were drunk, and the people in the fire were drunk and the people putting it out were drunk... I mean, it was New Years Eve, night time. If you walk all the way around the building you'll see what a terrible explosion it was."

"What about the town's leaders? Two years have gone by."

"What about them? Valdai bosses are like Valdai sleigh bells: they ring and ring, and nothing else. You know, they covered up the whole thing. They said that it was just a fire, and that there wasn't any explosion. That's the way everything goes here."

"And what was the building, before it became a Culture Center?" I asked. "It was a church," the 'shuttler' answered.

So there it was. Here, too, it's appropriate to recall the old man in Khotilovo. Here, too, nothing was clear. I asked what you might think were obvious questions, but no one could tell me exactly what happened, although almost everyone who lived nearby ran out on the square during the catastrophe. Some told me that there wasn't any explosion at all; others - that what exploded were barrels of gasoline a local musician supposedly kept in the basement of the building; others simply said it was the work of the devil; and yet others could have cared less. In a word, I didn't find out anything conclusive. On the main square stand the ruins of a building that was once central to life in Valdai and no one cares about it. And these were not the only ruins. Right nearby there was another semi-destroyed church, which seemed fairly large and rather beautiful. On its peeling walls hung a plaque with strange words about this architectural monument being protected by some government... Set between this church and the exploded Cultural Center, an "eternal flame" burns in memory of Valdai inhabitants who fell in the Great Patriotic War. On the other side of the burned out Cultural Center is another abandoned and dilapidated two-story building. It once housed the Valdai Pioneers' House. The square is crowned by a typical, contemporary, brown rectangular building with a restaurant.

The ruin of Freedom Square is supplemented by half-destroyed buildings on Soviet Prospect. Against this miserable, doomed background the only thing that looks fundamentally sound and prosperous is the building of the local administration, which the current Valdai leaders inherited from their predecessors.


Photo by Valery PisiginTwo shabby looking guys were selling a spinning wheel on the side of the road as I drove into Kresttsy. I had not seen such unusual and unexpected goods since leaving Moscow. Who knows what a spinning wheel is nowadays? Who has even seen one? Perhaps in a museum of local history - and even then not in every one. A spinning wheel - is a large wooden wheel attached at its axis to a frame that moves when you pump evenly on a special foot pedal. The big wheel is connected by a string to another, much smaller wheel; from this second wheel a thread is spun and goes through something else, and in the end, from sheep or another kind of wool you get a skein which is knitted into something wonderful and warm. That's the way it works, right? But the added value of a spinning wheel is that you can just spin the wheel with your foot. Had I seen a contraption like that as a child, it would have made much more of an impression on me than a sewing machine or a bicycle turned upside down.

According to the sellers, the spinning wheel standing on the roadside was over seventy years old. It looked brand new. Encouraged by their approving comments, I spun the wheel enthusiastically for a few minutes. It became clear that I couldn't live without this spinning wheel. The question of price arose.

"Fifty dollars." said one.

'Three hundred and fifty thousand rubles," said the other.

"There is a difference, by the way, about twenty odd dollars," I said, and asked whether there had been much interest.

"A few people have stopped. They come over, turn it for awhile and drive on," the men answered.

Being a subtle psychologist, I noted that they were blue from the cold and yet were entirely sober. So I offered them 250,000 and not a ruble more. They began to discuss my offer.

"What are you talking about? For 250,000 Zhinka will kill me," said the one who had asked for $50. Make it at least three hundred."

"No," I said. "I'll get killed for 300. I'm not even sure this thing will fit in our place. Two hundred fifty and that's final," said I, letting them know I was ready to leave.

After that, the other guy, who seemed to be thinking logically, said to the first one;

"If you don't sell the spinning wheel and don't bring any money home, you're dead anyway."

"That's true," answered the first one. He waved his hand in agreement. So the antique spinning wheel ended up on ihe back seat of my car and traveled on with me.

Taking advantage of this chaace encounter, I asked the men whether there was anything interesting in Kresttsy.

"Everything in Kresttsy is interesting," said one of them.

"How could there be anything interesting here," said the other. "Things are 'interesting' in Moscow, in Peter..."

"Maybe there's something interesting that happened, some story?" I clarified. "Perhaps there are some unusual people? Who would you recommend I talk to?"

"Who should you talk to? Hmmm... 'Who to talk to?' Who's there to talk to here? There's no one to talk to here," me second guy answered, as well as he could.

Then the first guy, turning to the second, laughed and said "Maybe he [that is me] should meet your doctor lady?"

Then a strange, joking exchange took place between the two men, with a lot of egging on and allusions that I didn't understand and therefore can't put down on paper. I understood only that one of the guys, it seems, had worked for a while in a hospital, and that the head doctor - that very same "doctor lady" - had kicked him oui. Apparently there was some kind of hullabaloo when she kicked him out because it made the second laugh so hard he cried. In short, I realized that no other 'interesting' people were on my itinerary in Krestisy and so I asked how to find this 'doctor lady.'

"You just go to the center of town and ask, and anyone will tell you where the clinic is. And at the clinic you ask for Marina Andreevna," the men explained, while one of them continued to laugh so hard there were tears in his eyes and he was coughing horribly.

Thanking the men, I headed into Kresttsy.

This was my first acquaintance with the old settlement located on the banks of the Kholova River at the intersection of two ancient roads. The intersection gave the town its name and its coat of arms, by the way: two roads crossing on a green background.

Having willy nilly devoted a great deal of attention to women in our "journey" we have noted that in our time it is women who have shouldered all the difficulties of life without considering whether or not it is worthwhile to do so. In this ritual performance men are relegated to a tertiary role, if indeed they have any role at all. Some say that a woman's strength is in her weakness. This is utter nonsense, invented by slick Lovelaces from the capital to charm the idiots they seduce. Woman's strength lies - in her dexterity, her inventiveness, her endurance, finally, in her... strength. And anyone who has met the chief doctor of the Kresttsy Regional Clinic even once can confirm the indisputable accuracy of this statement.

Marina Andreevna combined everything that a person possibly could, multiplied it by about one hundred, and continued to increase the resulting effect. A professional league soccer team might envy her energy, and a legion of toreadors her self-assurance. "There is no such thing as 'I can't', there is only 'I don't want to!'" - that might be Marina Andreevna's motto, and not only her motto. It is also a verdict pronounced on everyone around her who can't keep up. And who is nearby? Marina Andreevna's main support system consists of the working women of Kresttsy: doctors, nurses, lab personnel, technicians, technicians; and a few feeble men - they are incompetent, almost a misunderstanding, and the only thing they can do is stand ready to "fetch and carry." "Well, half a loaf is better than nothing." Marina Andreevna says about them with a sigh.

"Thieves should be in prison!" - proclaimed Major Zheglov.

"A doctor should not allow people to get sick!" says Marina Andreevna. Five years ago the reappointed head of the district agreed wich this conclusion and invited her to become the chief doctor. Since then, the head doctor and head of the district have worked together. First and foremost, they built a new clinic. From scratch. Who knows what it means to build a clinic in a small town these days? The work ethic of our domestic construction workers is such that the heroes (or the victims) are not those who do the building, but those for whom the building is built. Everything depends on them.

You have to know how to procure, plead, prevail, buy, threaten, bluff, and of course. every day, hour and even minute, you have to keep an eye on everything (and everyone). In short, you have to go through all the circles of hell for the construction to finally be completed, at least in part. Then you have to hire a staff, train qualified employees, put together a team, create a district health program, and, at the same time, depending on who did the building - you have to finish the construction independently, repair the construction defects, maintain efficiency and so on without end... I was told that in the beginning Marina Andreevna simply thrashed bad workers - drunkards, slackers and debauchers. (Now you understand why one of the guys was laughing at the other.)

The chief district doctor in our time has to know how to do a lot of things, if not everything. Marina Andreevna managed to get the clinic a good fleet of cars, its own generator and a gas boiler. The clinic is equipped with a portable and stationary ultrasound, a Japanese fibrogastroscope. CHECK. At present construction is going full tilt on something else important, because there are bulldozers digging things up, tractors buzzing around, the construction workers are building something, and Marina Andreevna herself watches over all this nonstop, without any hope for loafers that she will ever tire.

The head doctor is 43 years old. She has black eyes. black hair in a short, boyish cut, she's tall and large, her voice is loud, fast and distinct. It's obvious that Marina Andreevna is accustomed neither to objections nor to dialogue. Given her busy schedule, dialogue is beside the point. Her movements are quick, her commands to her coworkers clear and concrete, like a diagnosis; her gait is swift and assured, and when at the end of our chat Marina Andreevna showed me the facility, I could hardly keep up with her.

Marina Andreevna was born in Soviet Kirgizia, in the town of Dzhelal-Abad. As a child, she dreamed of being a doctor. It was then that her leadership qualities manifested themselves. She was an only child and now lives with her mother, Una Fedorovna, to whom she owes her upbringing. She has been in Kresttsy for 13 years, ending up here after she finished medical school and her internship. Before her appointment Marina Andreevna was a surgeon.

Oh! We can just imagine how she operated. At the slightest indication - she immediately threw the patient on the operating table and cut him open without any anesthesia; then with a scalpel or a knife or whatever was at hand, she excised the illness, swiftly sewed him back up, shook him out and sent him out the door healthy. Then she loudly commanded: "Next!"

Later, as we already know, she was offered the position of head doctor.

And so here we are in her office, and the conversation turns naturally to women's roles. It goes without saying that Marina Andreevna already has an answer to a barely asked question.

"Now why 'only women'? After all, there are one or two, maybe three men as well. Our district head. for instance. Although, of course, women should do the organizational work. Take my deputy, now. He's a good person, a wonderful family man, and everything about him is good, except for one thing - he's a man. His understanding of all our work is purely male. 'Why' - he says, do we need to improve the clinic? It's fine the way it is.' 'Why do we need another light bulb?' 'Why,' he says, 'do our new mothers in the maternity ward need nightgowns with flowers on them?' He bought up a lot of dark blue robes and is happy that he's done his job. But how and who do you give birth to in those kind of robes? This doesn't worry him, he's a man. Do you understand? Women should run everything nowadays. Not just hospitals. And men should be subordinate, they can carry pipes, lift heavy weights, dig ditches and so on. Why are you so worried by this tendency?"

"I'm not worried, it's just an unexpected fact for me" I answered.

"It's a good fact. If there were more women in the government there would be a lot less idle talk and more work. Woman is the keeper of the hearth. In every family she controls the household. She's the one who walks bent over, who's at the basin, the stove, the pots and pans, who cooks, cleans, washes. She's the one who knows: what needs to be done today, tomorrow, and the day after... You understand? And she brings this domestic attitude to her work. Of course women can be garbage, too. Every group has its freaks, among men, and among the animal world, so to speak."

Then I express my concern over the kind of men I've seen along my route. They are either wishy-washy blobs or they've taken up with gangsters. And in this case it's not clear what's worse...

"I don't know what is meant by a bandit anymore. I've seen these 'bandits,' and one representative of the Mafia made an excellent impression on me. He was clean as a whistle, it was a pleasure to look at him, he had a gold chain thick as your finger, a snow white shirt, beautiful boots. There was a reception, they poured everyone about five grams of cognac, and he didn't drink a drop."

"And it wouldn't bother you if you knew the origin of the money that bought all those nice outfits?" I asked.

"I'm more concerned about our government, the inaction of die parliament and all this infighting on television. Just a lot of blather, to put it crudely," Marina Andreevna answered sternly.

"Speaking of the government, since you follow it, what is your assessment?" I inquired, asking a question closer to politics.

"I'd rather talk about my own problems. It nauseates me when men in power, like catty women, go about seeding scores in front of the whole world. It's disgusting to watch, both as a woman, and as a leader, and simply as an inhabitant of ihis country. Disgusting! I'm sick of them all."

Then I asked Marina Andreevna to tell me about Kresttsy.

"I first saw Kresttsy thirteen years ago and it made a terrible impression on me. A dirty, disheveled hospital, terrible! Then. with the arrival of our new district head, Kresttsy began to revive. The district improved relative to the other twenty. Pensions - Kresttsy is now in first place for paying pensions; the hospital is one of the best in the oblast; housing maintenance - second after Novgorod. And the place was a wreck. Of course not every one here is happy. We Russians have that trait - no matter how good something is, no matter how much we're given - it will always be bad and not enough. You understand me?"

""We have another extreme," I remarked. "No matter how much you take away from us, how much harm you do us, even murder us - we will still take it and you won't hear a peep."

"I was in America once, in the state of Colorado," Marina Andreevna said, expanding on the theme. "Why is it that they don't have to be persuaded to get to work on time, you don't have to plead with them to do a good job. You understand? I'm always on everyone's case for being late - even if only by five minutes, they're always late. Even if it's only a half hour, they always leave early. You understand? Our troubles are all made up of these trifles, which explains the elements of administrative command system under my management."

"You mean to say people will only come to work on time and do a conscientious job if we have Stalin or someone like that?" I said "catching out" Marina Andreevna.

"Now then, why does it have to be Stalin? Water can wear down stone. Bit by bit, a step at a time.... My people are all waiting for me to calm down, to make my peace, to get tired and drop it. No, I tell them, you're making a mistake. On the contrary, I'm becoming meaner and more stubborn," said Marina Andreevna, with a crafty smile.

I told her about me problem the officer in the Klin draft board had noted: the closing of factories meant that young people didn't see any reason to acquire a profession when it couldn't earn them a living on anyway, and were busy simply "making money." This could lead to a situation in 15-20 years, when today's 20-year olds grow up, that our society would become completely savage. I asked what the head doctor thought about this.

"It's going to take years and years before our people will be able to get by without the stick. We still need a tsar, a general secretary, a president... it doesn't matter what you call him. It's absolutely necessary that this herd, to put it crudely, has a leader it obeys, whom it follows, who thinks about how to feed this flock, how to get the factories working so that people don't just do odd jobs, but learn a worthy craft and receive good money for it. You say the "factories closed down." But who was the leadership of those factories? People who had never solved any problems in their life and who don't know how to solve them now. They have to all be removed.

"But who can we substitute for them? And most important, who will do the substituting?" I asked.

"We have a population of 150 million. Are you telling me we can't find someone who known how to work? I don't believe it. We had a bunch of drunks in the hospital... I threw them all out and said: "I'll work by myself, but somewhere among the 16,000 inhabitants of Kresttsy I'll find one sensible driver." We have a trade school. Since time immemorial they've been training drivers, electricians, tractor and bulldozer drivers that no one needs here. You understand? So, if they're stubborn as mules, then someone has to send them to a different place, give them the opportunity to get the qualifications they need. Why did our district head sign a contract with Novgorod University and we'll have a college? They're going to train not drivers and electricians, but stove-setters and tile setters, because here in Kresttsy 98 percent of us have stove heat. Besides that, the university has been training people the town needs for two years now: lawyers, economists, managers. You understand ? We desperately need professionals. We had a brigade from Lvov that restored our church in four months! And our Repair and Construction Bureau is closed and will stay closed because I said: "I won't have anyone from that place for fifty kilometers around here!" They completely bungled the clinic for us. Everything these Russian muzhiks do is sloppy. Tell me, will you, who's preventing them from doing a good job? Who's preventing them from keeping a good reputation? We went and got them money for the finishing construction and materials, and what did they do? Nothing ! The roof is leaking, the sewage leaks. After them I went and rebuilt half the clinic myself, from scratch. That's how our men work."

Then I asked Marina Andreevna to tell me about herself.

"What can I tell you about myself? My whole life I've been scolded for my tongue. Our administration head recently brought all the former leaders of Krestisy together. And the former first secretary spoke and said that "I always knew that Marina Andreevna should be head doctor." And just who got in Marina Andreevna's way? Who destroyed the hospital?"

'Tell me about yourself, not about the hospital." I insisted.

"But my work is my life. I want our hospital to be the best. That's the way my mother brought me up. I work twenty-five hours a day and I want everyone else to work that way. A lot of people don't like me for this reason. That's the kind of profession we're in - we live for people. After all, no one returns from the other world. And each time we do something wrong it means a patient's death. This might sound extreme, but that's the way I see it And as long as I live, I'm going to carry that weight. In the building that was Catherine the Great's traveling palace we have our operating theater and I want to put in a marble floor. I bought the marble. And then the auditor comes and writes in his report - "unfounded expenditures." You see? Who decides? The accountant who knows absolutely zilch about this issue, or the head doctor, who believes that there should be a marble floor in the operating theater? We have to keep food in store for the patients - I went to Novgorod, to the wholesale market, bought six bags of grains, three bags of sugar, a barrel of sunflower oil - and that was it! Now that problem is solved for a few months. But here they call it "a violation of financial discipline."

"Marina Andreevna, what are the people like in Kresttsy? What are your patients like?"

"They're not bad, they're hard working. But they're all neglected, sick, many are at their wits end. And almost all of them have a parasitical strain: "They should!" "They have to!" "I'm entitled." And where do all these benefits come from, how does it all get here, what financial basis is there for it? That doesn't concern anyone. 'Gimme!' that's all you hear."

I decided to try to roust Marina Andreevna from her administrative frame of mind, and asked:

"Imagine that in your life you met a strong man, someone who would protect you, would be an authority for you, who would be stronger than you..."

"Hard to imagine. I don't think that will happen in my life."

"But still. Just imagine. What would happen?"

"I think I would crush him quickly. Then again, maybe we'd be a marvelous match. He would be very willful, smart... (I caught the barest glimpse of a romantic, mischievous girl on Marina Andreevna's face). I don't think a man has to be handsome. I don't care how tall he is. Even if he's five foot three. But that realization came with age. A man should be intelligent, wise, and not drink. For me. a person who drinks isn't a human being."

"And it doesn't bother you that you don't have a normal family, children?"

"No, it doesn't bother me. That's my fate. My grandma takes care of me - that's what I call my mother. We live together. She's the authority in my life, I don't even buy myself anything without her. Only with her advice. She's very wise."

Here I don't want people to conclude that the head doctor of Kresttsy isn't knowledgeable or interested in anything other than her work. Our life could easily take all the refinement out of anyone. But Marina Andreevna knows a great deal about serious music and literature, she knows architecture quite well (for instance, she immediate told me the name of the architect who built the Khotilovo church!) She loves Pushkin and corresponds with many well known Pushkin specialists. One time she organized an excursion to Pushkinian haunts, sat her employees down in the bus and as a "voluntarily requirement" of their job, gave her team a taste of the sublime. At first everyone was unhappy, but afterward they all thanked her. Maybe that's the way we need to be treated? Who knows?

"What needs to be done for the country to revive?"

"Work, that's what! Not just in the primitive sense, not only with our hands, but with our heads. We never have any money, but I go on building, building, building... They didn't give us money for salaries - so I went to the bank and took out a loan. I know I'll get cuffed on the ears for this, but I did it anyway, and I'll do it again. I opened a pharmacy. No money? I can take out a loan, buy up the goods and sell them without huge mark ups. People should buy medicine and stay healthy, because when they end up here in terrible shape ifs a lot more expensive for us. The birth rate has gone way down. So we got together and started thinking about how to protect pregnant women, so that they give birth to their children and raise them. We came up with something. Our pregnant women from the villages are driven to their appointments for free. They are given free juices, a selection of foods, milk, medicine. About once a month. In addition to this, newlyweds get one million rubles for their first child. Even this has brought results. In 1995 we had 166 children bom here. And this year we've had as many in six months. You understand?

Our conversation was accompanied by the constant crackle of the telephone and fax and interrupted by employee visits during which Marina Andreevna gave a wide variety of orders, advice and recommendations. During this time she signed all sorts of documents, and looked over numerous papers and financial statements.

When our conversation was over she gave me a tour of the clinic. We visited all the floors and went down to the basement where preparation for the pharmacy opening had just been completed. I could see that despite her severity and strictness, her employees loved her, and felt protected and sure of themselves in her company. What could be more valuable these days?

"We made a pharmacy with laboratories, storerooms, and a warehouse out of a damp, unfit basement; we lured professionals here, created several jobs, and we're going to sell medicine... And why did this all happen? Because you have to know how to work! Until people begin working - there won't be anything. Neither Yeltsin nor Yavlinsky, nor Clinton, nor the tsar, nor God, no one will be able to do anything here or get things moving.

"And if people don't begin to work?"

"Then weight will be carried by those who can drag the herd behind them. That's the way it's always been. There will be a few more Marina Andreevnas, another administration head like we have, someone else, and we will pull the whole thing along. You understand? Water can wear down stone."

I understand, Marina Andreevna, but what about another proverb?: "Water won't run under a stationary stone."

You may think what you like about the chief doctor of the Kresnsy Clinic, her methods and principles, words and expressions, you can be ironical about her and be glad she's a doctor and not a prosecutor. The most important thing, however, is that she is doing good. She treats people in a small district. Moreover, she organizes this treatment, and that means she organizes life. Her model doesn't correspond to vanguard managerial methods, is isn't oriented toward short term benefit, but toward her natural surroundings: the inhabitants of the village and the nearby villages, and the whole world around them which is called Russia. Who can reproach her for this? Who has the right to say: "You mustn't do it that way, you have to do it differently?"

Sometimes you just slop and look around you: what's holding all this up? And you hear the same surprised question all around: What's keep this all together? What is it? Everything is already long gone, squandered, or so it would seem.

And indeed, it is amazing! Whatever happens here, however many of us are destroyed, conquered, robbed, however much we ourselves steal, whatever experiments we conduct on ourselves, whatever lies we trap ourselves in and whatever devil we pray to - Mother Russia still stands. Slowly, unwillingly, with a squeak, but our huge, unmanageable wheel has kept on turning, turning, turning...for years, decades, centuries… And it's not clear whether it's the Marina Andreevnas who turn it, like possesed squirrels in a cage, or the Lord God himself who is having fun with us like a small child playing with a spinning wheel on the side of the big road.

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

See also:

Valery Pisigin. Photos and Books (in Russian)

Valery Pisigin Excerpt from: Voyage from Moscow to St. Petersburg

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