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A Pilgrim on the Volga: A Memoir from the '90s

Volga River
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Date: Sun, 30 Oct 2011
From: Sergei Roy <SergeiRoy@yandex.ru>
Subject: wilderness

A Pilgrim on the Volga: A Memoir from the '90s
Sergei Roy [Former editor of Moscow News]

There never was a journey that was not a journey within.

Forget who.


Probably the nicest thing about the wilds of Russia is that they're always just 'round the corner. Sure, you can climb aboard a plane and fly nonstop for a day or two and soon be right in a survivalist's paradise, among rapids, snowstorms, bears and lynxes and earthquakes. All quite nice in their own way. Alternately, you can board a local train, or elektrichka, ride a couple of hours out of town, and there you'll be, all set to explore the tamer but more charming, watercolor beauty of Central Russia's landscapes. Or, if so inclined, you can study wilderness of a different kind, the mysterious Russian, a.k.a. Slavic, soul mysteriously married to raging strong drink, and who can blame you if you prefer the lynxes and the earthquakes?

I was lucky that way. In the early nineteen-nineties, I lived in Tver, right on the Volga, about a hundred miles north-west of Moscow. Whenever I felt I couldn't stand the then prevailing zoo any longer, I took a jump out of my window and paddled away for a few days, usually in the smallest of my dingies, the Swallow, mumbling Keats' lines under my breath: "Och the charm // When we choose // To follow one's nose // To the north," except, of course, that I mostly followed my nose south, downriver.

The Swallow is a little poem of a dinghy, though some people have compared it to a certain rubber item because of its diminutive size. Indeed, you put it on rather than sit down in it, but for the rest it is quite a worthy vessel, kayak-shaped, comfortable and reliable, in its own way. It is divided into six separately inflatable sections, which is right and proper, for on one occasion some reed stumps on the Aral Sea (they must have used axes to cut down those reeds of incredible thickness) punctured two of her bottom sections, and I was still able to paddle on for several hours before managing to squeeze my way through the reed thicket to shore. Carrying a lady passenger to boot. Nerve-racking, of course, but what's adventure without a touch of fear. Stale, vapid stuff.

Having no keel, rudder, outrigger, centerboard or leeboard, she wiggles her behind rather obscenely as you paddle along, and is hard to trim and, generally, to please. Keeping her on an even keel even in dead calm is an art in itself. She takes it unkindly if you so much as take a deep breath. My ex, a great show-off, once found it out the hard way on one of our trips on the Aral Sea. You see, she thought she'd demonstrate the proper way to handle the craft to some gawking locals. The naughty thing plopped over without a second's delay the moment she sensed alien buttocks slide in, to the huge delight of the assembled unshaven ex-cons (now game wardens) with a sadly primitive sense of humor, and one of them muttered audibly, "Well, I could do that trick myself..."

I've had some nice adventures sailing that midget in the most bizarre places, on the Caspian and the Aral and rapids-filled rivers and vast Siberian lakes that don't seem to have any shores. In the process, I often peered into the abysses of nonbeing, as some highbrows put it, though they themselves mostly prefer to peer in these abysses from the height of their sofas, God bless their timid souls. I'd be alone for weeks on end with no one but sea and desert and wind and molten sun to keep me company, until it got to a point where I wanted to pinch myself to assure my mind of... of what? I wish I knew. Something.

In Tver, it turned out that none of that sort of thing was really necessary. The Volga proved to me I could do all the kayaking-cum-soul-searching right next door. Especially the soul-searching.


Let's start like this: it was a warm, quiet, sunny, but otherwise perfectly foul day, and I was in a particularly murderous mood. The publisher for whom I had translated a whole novel had vanished along with royalties due me for two previous novels. Business, Russian style. Just another sign of the country going to the dogs, via a possible civil war. My loved one had done a vanishing trick of her own for the summer. She obviously did not love me. No one loved me. I depended on love in lots of ways in those days, silly me, and there I was, high and dry.

Then there was this son of a bitch on the suburban train, practicing love in his own way. He glued his pelvis to the backside of a comely young woman in a crowd where you couldn't move an inch. The lady burst into tears, I socked the bastard a good one on the nose, but I always have these nasty reactions afterwards. The human face was not made for bashing, for Christ's sake. After all, it is said to be in God's own likeness. Actually, He had his share of bashing, but as for hauling off Himself, no, not on your life. True, I don't believe in God, but have this sneaky suspicion that He believes in me. That I'm not a bad sort at heart, I mean.

I came back home, knocked about my apartment for a while, and sat down to work on a South Sea adventure novel (1) that had sat in a dusty pile on my desk for a few years, but it seemed as stale as a burp of last night's beer. Scared I might fall out of love with the heroine, I snarled, jumped up in a tizzy, threw some stuff in my rucksack, and was soon trudging towards a nearby birch coppice on the Volga bank.

There I furiously pumped the Swallow with air from my own lungs (I never use a pump on the dear little thing; always mouth-to-nozzle) and pushed off. For about half an hour I plied my double-bladed oar so savagely that the stout duralumin instrument bent and creaked piteously until I relented, dropped it across my lap, and lay back. Eyes half-closed, I watched the Swallow furtively perform her usual trick, starting to yaw to port (it was always to port) as soon as I stopped paddling, and coming to rest at exactly the right angle to her previous course. She was so obstinately sneaky about the maneuver I couldn't help grinning.

I sighed, stretched out full length, resting my head on the rucksack lashed to the afterdeck, and looked around. I was drifting close to the wooded left bank. No one about, just empty liquid space with some buildings and figures on the distant right bank, all of which I resolutely ignored. I was sick and tired of them all, but at a distance... let them live. I felt the tight knot inside me loosen. The boat rocked gently. The sun chopped the water nearby into bright little diamonds. In the distance, it simply set the river aflame. The zephyr wafted puffs of air against my skin softly, as on a sick man. It was hard to believe that my present sunny self and the grouchy animal fretting himself to shreds over total nothings, forgotten by now, were the same physical person.

I had gone through this kind of transfiguration a hundred times before and still could not get over the contrast between the beauty and serenity of the God-given world in which we were so undeservedly privileged to live and the asses we made of ourselves in it, the hell we made out of it for others, but mainly for ourselves. If only humans could feel this properly, then there would be no beastliness in this world. After all, we are such vastly comical characters, both the hurters and the hurt, pulling and pushing at things like ants at straws and crumbs, greedily oblivious to the giant, indifferent foot ready at any moment to squash us to sludge. Ridiculous. Okay, somebody hurt me, I could always forgive them, couldn't I? And feel nobly generous about it. I felt I could even forgive the hulking moron whose nose I'd flattened on the train. I felt really holy.

It must have been the "you sin, you repent" system at work. Your soul got hurt, so the best you could think of was, lift your eye toward the sky, where there was no sadness nor sighing but whoopee eternal.

It was a good place to feel holy. I pulled out my binoculars from a case stuck between my knees and trained them on the dome of the Ascension Cathedral at the Orsha monastery quietly rising at the spot where the Orsha flows into the Volga. It stands on fairly low ground, but can still be seen from afar. Pretty monumental. Getting closer, I saw scaffolding around the cathedral and felt disappointed, but not very. It was better than finding yet another disfigured corpse of a church, like the thousands that could be seen in every corner of Russia a short while before. Legacy of an atheist state. Actually, there were plenty of birch-trees growing on bell-towers even in those days. Sickening, isn't it: nature makes you feel holy, and then you come to a ruined church and you want to swear a blue streak at the scum that have butchered such beauty. This often made one feel nostalgic for a Golden Age. It took an effort to recall that there had never been a Golden Age. Not in Russia, anyway. But the scaffolding was a sign of rebirth. Thank God for that.

I turned into the Orsha, cozily narrow even at the mouth, and climbed out of the kayak to take a walk around the cathedral. Even behind the scaffolding it stood ancient, impressive, and aloof. Clearly in a different class from the quaint provincial baroque of the church at Vlasyevo next to the birch-tree coppice where I had started. There, the heavy ornamentation was in faintly comical contrast to the church's diminutive size, inviting a condescending pat on the back. No such levity here, though. You felt awed, whether you wanted to or not.

I ran my hand over one of the massive, seamless brick walls that exuded a somewhat frightening dignity, its surface unevenly divided by slightly projecting narrow supports, what did architects call them? Oh yes, pilasters, that's the word. There was obvious genius about the apparently haphazard asymmetrical placement of the pilasters, also of the fairly small and only lightly adorned windows. Now, that living line of portal arches, almost audibly straining to support the heavy walls... that was never drawn with a pair of compasses, I could swear. More like God's own exercise in geometry.

I turned away, not to spoil that precious first impression, and walked back to my craft. There was something that bothered me about the church's outline, like a rhyme stubbornly hanging back round the corner of one's mind. I looked back, shades of Lot's wife. The dome... I didn't even like to think the thought, but the dome looked slightly Islamic to me.

The view nagged and nagged, so, much as I hate to have my ignorantly unorthodox opinions shattered by enlightened authority, I pulled from my rucksack a tiny guide to the Upper Volga architectural treasures, read a passage, then threw it down in disgust. There it was: monastery founded in the 14th century, present cathedral building dating back to the 16th, and originally, it was FIVE-DOMED. The 1976 guide did not mention when it had lost the other four cupolas, a sure sign of a Bolshevik decapitation. What pigs. OK, you've no faith, that's fine, I haven't any myself, but why demolish the domes, why spoil the beauty, you pigs?

My mood soured again, and I gloomily started paddling up the Orsha. Now I fretted about fretting about the cathedral. After all, what was the cathedral to me, what was I to the cathedral? But no, the thing hurt me like a bad tooth. This definitely came under my home-made definition of spirituality: an ability to get worked up about things outside your feeding-trough. Like the sky, or a dog's pitiful eyes. Or even the eyes of a rapist smashing his face on my fist, the bridge of his nose cracking so wetly...

No, I definitely had to get away from these visions. By paddling up the Orsha, then some almost dried-up, overgrown narrow ditches, I could reach a series of biggish lakes dotted with islands populated mostly by morose-looking bears and surrounded on all sides by impassable marshes. All this promised plenty of solitude and mosquitoes, in fifty-fifty proportion. For now, though, rows of metal-gray five-story buildings loomed ahead, and I felt a sudden revulsion, a flood of emotion not unlike claustrophobia. I sharply stopped the Swallow and yanked her head back the way we'd come. She seemed to perform the maneuver with instant readiness and even relief. My precious.

I slunk past the cathedral, ashamed to know its secret grief. On the whole, cathedrals were not much in my line. I mostly specialized in the tundra, the mountains, the taiga, and the like. A long time before I decided that, if I survived my exercises in survival, I would do Rheims and campaniles and museums, the lot, at seventy or so. Back then "at seventy" seemed practically in afterlife, and here all of a sudden it was almost a gravestone's throw away. Scary. I might, of course, put the museums off for another five or ten or fifty years, I was in no hurry, but the trumpet was calling. Time to start thinking of the soul...

I had long known, even as I frolicked around, that I would have a big problem there some day. My soul had run around loose, unconnected with any Church. The umbilical cord tying me to my Granny's God had insensibly withered away, so now I'd have to explore this spiritual jungle from scratch. Now was as good a starting point as any. Sure, one could look at a cathedral as if it were no more than quaintly organized space. Architecturally, so to speak. Like my Soviet-era guide, equally enthusiastic over post offices, palaces, churches, and former brothels. Well, I just couldn't be as laid back about these things, so let me go my way. Whatever it might be.


Back in the Volga's wide open space I felt better at once. I located the next church far ahead on the right bank, in Novo-Semenovskoye, and started paddling quietly that way, listening attentively to the babble of voices in my head about how, or if, one could be good without believing in God, and whether God was more than just a label for all the nice things in me and others. You know, all that stuff long run into the ground by a host of other folks.

Then there was this question: if one does not believe in an afterlife, what's the use looking for one's true self? OK, you'll find it, like it was a cufflink that's rolled under a sofa, and... and what? While you've searched, the Toothy One will have crept up on you, and worms do not much care whether you've searched or not and whether you've found something worth finding or spent your life like the worst kind of pig. They simply will not know the difference. They do not care, so why should you? A puzzle. And yet there is something that drives you to go on looking. What is it? Nothing but puzzles wherever one looked. Take this: I was feeling sad as a chained monkey, and all the while the sun was all smiles, one big glob of mirth. Who was it laughing at? Me, most likely. Infuriating. In-bloody-furiating.

The Volga was getting a bit out of hand by now, stretching wider and wider. Feeling a bit tired, I lay back and closed my eyes, afraid to scare away tiny thought wavelets trembling in the corners of my mind, like sunlight through foliage. I knew that chasing these sun spots was hopeless: any idea I might arrive at in the end would be cruder or anyway simply different. But the chasing itself was as pleasant as feeling the first drink of the night take hold. And without this seemingly fruitless chasing the bits of the puzzle were never going to fall in place, right?

A hoarse, contemptuous rumble, starting well in ultrasound, nearly blew me out of the water in a loose cloud of semi-annihilated particles. I waved my oar frantically to prove to the helmsman of a six-decked white monster that I was real, I was earnest, and a liquid grave was not my goal. But the damn Moloch paid me no attention at all. So I pulled for all I was worth and more, and was hit by nothing worse than a giant bow-wave. For a few moments I rode an aquatic roller-coaster, but the Swallow seemed to enjoy it; she takes this sort of thing with ducklike jauntiness. My heart-beat gradually slowed down. Better watch out, or all of this world's puzzles might be solved for me sooner than I reckoned, and no one to look for my watery whereabouts.

It would've served me right to be run down like that, dozing off in midstream. Instead of being ashamed or scared, though, I felt immense relief and bawled at the top of my voice in a transport of almost drunken glee, Allons, enfants de la Patrii-e, Le jour de gloire est arrivé... as I cheerfully paddled away.

The church was quite close by now. To save time, I decided to do my sight-seeing from the river. Through binoculars, I could see all I wanted to and avoid seeing what I didn't choose to.

There seemed to be quite a cluster of church buildings up there on the high bank. I slowly went over them, one after another, like slides in a projector. The bigger church was apparently the oldest of the lot, an engagingly naive blend of a basic Ancient Russian structure and early Classicist overtones, with curiously ambiguous pilasters unconvincingly pretending to carry most of the weight while merely stressing the thickness of the walls.

The smaller church or side chapel was a different proposition altogether. Pure Empire, an unadorned, inarticulate, massive cube (even the windows were without casings) trying to look as important and impressive as it could, and almost succeeding. I idly wondered why the older buildings so easily touched one's strings of worship within, while these nineteenth-century inventions left one... well, merely curious, I guess. Maybe the old 'uns were closer to eternity, having been around so much longer. Or else a certain simplicity and even crudity were essential. It was as if they had always been there, and nothing could stand comparison with them with much success.

Next slide: a wide, squatty refectory. Sure, refectories were necessary. Let it be, then. Next: a massive bell-tower, also on the squat side. This one said practically nothing to me, and I was glad I had decided to see the sights from my aquatic rocking-chair for once.

A wave from a barge puffing upstream behind my back shook me up. I took a few absent-minded strokes, trying to catch an elusive thought by the tail. Steady, mate... It looked like the intensity of my mystic feelings depended more on the talent or lack of it in some anonymous, long-dead builders than on any impulse from within my admirable soul, right? Right. And why not? We are all humans exchanging signals. A church is a signal just like a word is, both can evoke an echo, but for the love of God I didn't get what God had to do with any of this. I could see the point of Laplace's impudent reply to Napoleon: Sire, je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse. God was a hypothesis he had no use for. A real gutsy guy, that astronomer.

Here I glanced over toward the tourist camp on the left bank, from whose beach plenty of signals were coming: women giggling and screaming like playful hyenas, men guffawing, deafening cannibal pop songs pouring from loudspeakers. No, I was definitely better off here close to the nettles and burdocks. No one around except misanthropic, complex-ridden geese full of self-importance and suspicion like so many sulky Fidel Castros, ever ready to attack a hostile world. OK geese, you stay on your territory, and I'll stick to mine. We don't want any aggravation of tension, right? Détente's the word.

Generally, I like paddling close to shore. You have a sense of motion there; in midstream you feel suspended in eternity like a fly in a piece of amber. Away from the shore, the movement of the landscape is more a matter of the imagination. This teaches one humility in the face of infinity, but gets boring after a while. Sailing is totally different. Sailing is often a way of sidling up to God, like a little white cloud, as someone put it. Sighing for a sail, I had no choice but to go on pushing through space manually.

My left shoulder, held together by synthetic sinews after a dive down a crevasse many years ago, was burning fiercely, but there was nothing I could do about it. Except try to outsuffer long-suffering Jesus Christ Superstar. But that gentleman had an assignment from his commanding officer. Nothing like that in my special case. I was totally on my own. Solo. An emblematic word that snugly fitted most of my life.

The sun was turning my willpower to jelly, anyway. So I returned to the left bank and was soon paddling in the shade that the tall, thick woods cast on the river. The cool made me feel as cheerful as a lark, minus the singing. Now and then I stopped to pull up a water-lily, sniff at it and ceremoniously put it back where it belonged. This made me feel a bit comical, but my eco-conscience was safe, and the sniffing broke up the monotony of dipping the paddle left... right... left... right to infinity and then some, until I began to suspect there was some sense in the Muslim, or was it Buddhist, worldview after all. What did it matter if I arrived at my destination an hour earlier or later, and what were goals and destinations anyway? Mere illusion.

I groped in my head for something deeper than this worm-eaten stuff but it was too full of nothing, so I stretched out on the resilient cushiony bottom of the dinghy's womb and closed my eyes. My last thought was of drunken speedboats but, apparently steeped by this time in the Muslim spirit to the gills, I just muttered "Inshallah" and switched off.


It wasn't speedboats that roused me half an hour later, it was mosquitoes. The dinghy had drifted into a backwater crowded with a biggish patch of water lilies densely inhabited with hosts of these hungry pests. I scratched and swore my way out of that patch. What was it old man Dostoevsky once said? Beauty will save the world? Rancid nonsense. There was always some filthy blood-sucker behind things of beauty like women or lilies, which were also women, in their way ­ weren't they called water nymphs? Ophelia o nymphet, remember me in thine whatchamacallems, and don't drown yourself, please, old girl, it doesn't do to get drowned, it solves nothing, honest. Merely complicates things outrageously, and adds misery by the ton.

As I muttered these orisons, a sample of beauty of quite a different kind, the church in Gorodnya, was taking shape on the right bank, and I paddled hurriedly until I found the spot from which to see it best. A mighty bell-tower and a church, smaller than the bell-tower in size and more ancient, rose on a hill above the river and ravines surrounding them on all sides. From my spot down on the river they seemed to be soaring up in the sky, more like celestial guests than earthly structures, truly.

If you let your imagination race, you could see how things had been here in the 14th century and after, when there was a fort up there to protect the fords and the highway. The fort was called Vertyazin then, and it belonged to Moscow's enemy, the Grand Dukes of Tver. So I might be a Muscovy scout on a recce. I shivered. Those were real rough times. How would it feel to have an arrow hit you between shoulder blades? Ugh. Better stay with the present.

All that remained of the fort now was this church, maimed and then restored, with a small onion-shaped dome in place of the old helmet-like one. And still it was a marvel. It made nonsense of one's irony and snotty aesthetic posturing. There one was, one's soft pulp at the core laid bare to doubt and fear and shame and jealousy.

I lowered my binoculars. Believers had it fine. They were not guests in church, nor chance visitors on this earth, either. If they behaved themselves in this world, they had the promise of even better things in the next. A bargain, like. I've always had this dim idea that being good for nothing was more dignified. Took greater courage. No pie in the sky.

But who was I to criticize these things? Me, an insignificant passerby dropped in this vale of snivel by sheer spermatozoidal accident only to be squashed in due course by a moronic Juggernaut, leaving no portion of me to enjoy the breathtaking spectacle of humanity studiously murdering itself and everything in sight by throwing up filth and more filth in which to wallow. Surely one had every right to feel envious.

I shook my head, remembering the time I had got as close as I ever had to believing, right up there, on the cathedral's six hundredth anniversary. Russia was then merely beginning to recall it was an Orthodox Christian land, and that day the scene looked more like a May Day rally, with lines of cars stretching along the motorway from horizon to horizon and a throng of thousands outside the cathedral all pushing to get inside. Officials galore, ditto police maintaining a semblance of order, trading jokes with the folks and meting out ready justice in their usual ham-fisted way. I did get in, but mostly because of being on the broad-shouldered side, I guess.

Once inside, I stood about awhile, cooling off after the tussle with the police, taking in the surroundings and sorting out impressions. There were none of those endless lines all pointing upward, as in Gothic churches. Each wall was simplicity itself, massive and smooth. But the whole thing seemed to be ready to take off and start flying at any moment now, so powerful was the pull of the infinitely high, light-filled conic dome beckoning the soul to fly up, up, away from this space below crowded with walls, icons, pillars, and people. Gradually, though, I began to feel more at home there on the solid stone floor. I could see now it was a really fine and even divine place to be in, after all.

Time shifted into a different gear, and I felt emotion rise like a roused cobra. Any moment now it might start swinging its inflated hood in time with the fakir's flute. I tried to throw reason's lasso round the swollen neck, but the incense, more overpowering than the smell of shish-kebab, the gold and the reflected gold of the candle-light, the enigmatic looks of the straight-nosed folks in the icons, the hypnotic rumble of Old Church Slavonic, were as unstoppable as a rising tide. They were pushing my absurdly sensitive soul into an alien dimension where it was no longer clear which of my I's held sway. In fact, even the very existence of those selves was doubtful ­ unless someone fired a pistol at the chandelier, but what would be the point? The hateful adjective "transcendental" floated idly by along the edge of my consciousness, then disappeared from view like a broken-off bit of fence in a flood. The heavenly voices of the choir set my soul loose, it seemed to soar higher and higher. I felt moisture accumulating somewhere under my eyeglasses, my breathing growing quicker and more uneven, I suspect I went pale, and for some reason my heart overflowed with a feeling of great pity. Pity for myself, above all, but also for these folks around me, brethren, I guess I should call them, and... And what? Sistern? That seemed wrong, but what did words count? Nothing. Zero. Not here, not now.

Here the singing ended. I stopped myself breaking into applause just in the nick of time, and felt horribly ashamed, only that was nothing compared to the shock I got the next moment.

I had naturally assumed that most of the audience (sorry, congregation) were stray visitors like myself, rubbernecks such as always pervade public gatherings in Russia, even (or especially) at the barricades. Most were stolid-looking peasant types in their Sunday best, with a sprinkling of obvious intellectuals here and there (at a guess, newly converted from Orthodox Marxism to Orthodox Christianity), and some types who looked pretty criminal to me, thick-necked mobsters with tons of gold and jewelry prominently displayed. May have been New Russians, for all I knew. Curiously, they also had that same stolid peasant look. To my utter astonishment, at a code word from someone (it could be Patriarch Alexy II himself, for he was present there and had even sprinkled some holy water on me) they all broke into an endless recitative of a prayer which must have taken years and years to learn by heart and went on and on and on, like the chorus at the Bolshoi.

Honest, I felt like an intruder and impostor, a complete alien amongst these good people. So I waited for the prayer to end, then timidly pushed my way back to the police cordon and beyond, making room in the cathedral for someone more deserving of it.


The memory of that episode quaintly rhymed with the mystic vibes that were now making me feel abjectly grateful to Someone Up There for permitting me to revel in so much beauty all laid out for my contemplation and edification. But the Devil, it seemed, was particularly active that day, too.

For at this moment I saw out of the corner of my eye a skiff, an eight, round the tip of an island and come flying toward me. When it came closer, my Swallow nearly keeled over in amazement and delight, for the eight was powered by the most delicious-looking assortment of sweaty young Amazons I'd seen, swinging their oars back, bending real low then falling on their backs as the blades ripped through water, oh my oh my oh my... Amazons, hell. Those silly cows used to sear off their right breasts in order to shoot their bows straight. Now, these beauties had absolutely the right number of everything, and very economically covered. I had the greatest difficulty keeping my eyes on the landscape and my mind off the Folies Bergere, though I had never been there and, anyway, it was not likely to feature a double row of magnificent torsos and belly and leg muscles so important in the art of rowing.

As they drew near, I saluted with my oar and yelled:

"Attaboy, ladies! You're doing just GREAT!"

"Just doing our best," they replied modestly, slumping in their seats, the way oarsmen (sorry, oarspersons) do as they rest.

The Swallow nimbly sidled up to the eight, and I had no choice but to hold on to the skiff's gunwale.

"Where are you from, and where are you headed?" they asked.

"Just following my nose, fleeing from heartache," I replied.

"Alone?" they chorused, and it was my turn to act modest.

"Sure," I replied indifferently, and they sort of squeaked, as if it was terribly heroic of me. Then:

"Are these binoculars?"

"Sure they are," I said again and eagerly handed them over.

There was much oohing and aahing as they looked at the cathedral, and have you noticed that when someone looks through binoculars their chest sort of straightens and fills out in a particularly modest but breathtaking way? So I hurried to start up a conversation with the petite coxswain (sorry again, coxperson) trying to keep from squinting back at the others and stick to the subject of the beauty of the cathedral, especially as observed from the river. Then I concentrated on the weather, which was indeed oppressive, so I shared my two bottles of mineral water with them. At this, the hearts really melted, and there were even shyly playful pleas to take them on board, to which I replied why not, the Swallow only looked a wisp of nothing, she was as bonny a craft as one might wish, while her skipper... oh, he was even bonnier, with plenty of hidden charms, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of mineral water.

On this buccaneer note we parted, with what I can only describe as a spasm of regret (mutual, I hoped). They flew away, showing off a bit, while I stayed in place a long time, wistfully following them with my eyes (through my powerful binoculars, need I say) as the phrase "vessel of sin" drifted into my mind.

I resumed my lazy paddling, just as lazily rummaging in a heap of para-religious riddles. Why "vessel"? Why "sin"? What was the bloody idea? Why frown on delights of the flesh? To make them sweeter? Perverse. No wonder the poor things tended to be bitchy. It must really hurt to hear things like "living in sin," and everyone knows what sin is meant. As if there were no worse ones. Even with all the proper rites performed, it's still sin. No Siberian peasant will lie with his wife before going on a bear hunt. For fear it might bring someone's wrath down on his head. Silly clods.

Or consider this childish question: Christ knew no woman in the proper biblical sense. You know, like Adam knew Eve. Why? For heaven's sake, why? Christianity is one long book about love, and there you have a whole all-important chapter ripped out most crudely. I might understand it if He had gone up to heaven before puberty, but He was right in his prime. Me, I fervently wished I were still His age, thirty-three, I'd show them some nice ways to mortify flesh. To screaming point and beyond. Of course, He knew all about love as He knew about everything else in His divine wisdom. Theoretically, so to speak. But you could have this sort of knowledge kicking back somewhere on a cloud. No need to ride His donkey all over Galilee only to get into that terminal mess. Anyway, what's mere theory? Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum... Well put, don't you think? Some Post-modernist might hit the point even harder: When in love, make love; Platonic love is just a childish erotic game. Not to be compared with the real thing...

Or take this issue of suffering, now. If you want to know suffering in a practical way, so to speak, first thing you do, you fall in love, right? Absolutely. But for Him it was deemed unseemly, I guess. I really think that the Hindus had it better thought out. When Rama's Sita got kidnapped or something, the fellow really ran amok. He just ripped Ceylon in half, according to some reports.

It's enough to make you wonder if the Gospels weren't at one time censored by some meddling catacomb bishop, and there had been more to the Magdalene angle than now meets the eye (2). After all, she was a pro. See how vigorously she went to work on Him, washing His feet in tears, wiping them with her hair (I'd bet Freud sat up and took notice of that hair), anointing His feet with ointment. And as for kisses! "This woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet..." How about that! You may be divine three times over, but some sort of byplay is inevitable.

I sighed again, for the umpteenth time that funny day. There was so much I would have to sort out before I lay down on my death-bed omniscient (barring sclerosis) and generally perfect, only what use would that perfection be to me then? I again ended up with my nose flat against that particular wall. Just then, though, I did not feel like bothering my head about that sort of stuff. Recent scenes kept flitting through my brain, my lips were distended in the silliest of grins, while my mind was flooded with pleasant if unrealistic ideas, from which I was only distracted by a rude clap of thunder.

Startled, I looked around.


A tiny dark cloud, obliterated from my mind by a stream of impressions, Freudian and otherwise, had now grown to fill the whole sky. The gentle zephyr of a few minutes before suddenly went berserk, fiercely hitting my naked body with huge, heavy, cold drops. There came a Moscow Art Theater pause followed by an avalanche or deluge or some such French word. I suddenly found myself in a very small and ruthlessly violent world, surrounded on all sides by a light-gray streaky wall of rain, more like another, vertical Volga. No sky, no shore, no company but a dinghy bucking and rearing under me like a bull at a rodeo, treating me as an intrusive chump to be catapulted from the seat. My skin was sadistically lashed by what seemed to be a gale force wind slinging grape-shot, but that was the least of my worries, the Swallow being what she is, trimwise. All of a sudden she was eager to slip from under my buttocks, given a hundredth of a chance, and I had to draw on every ounce of my sense of balance apparently centered in that organ or organs, not the most intelligent part of the human body and terribly prone to error.

Besides, the wall of rain might any second be parted by the proud prow of a roaring hydrofoil doing... what? Thirty or forty knots? Didn't make much difference to my chances of survival. I concentrated nervously on plying my two-bladed oar, a most vital instrument of keeping your balance in a kayak. It's much like a tightrope dancer's pole, and should you stick the wrong end of it into the wrong wave at the wrong millisecond, it's oopsadaisy and please throw the man a ring-buoy before you run him down. Somewhere at the back of my mind a line from Pushkin kept throbbing (translation mine): "There's delight in a fight..." while in a different compartment someone snarled in a most ungentlemanly manner, "Delight my ass!"

Then something dark loomed ahead, and my heart nearly went through the roof of my mouth, for the thing looked for all the world like the bow of an enormous vessel bearing down on me. The next second, however, I saw it was merely the high wedge-like upstream bank of an island. I slipped under its lee, beached my craft, crawled out of it and was trying to loosen up my tense muscles and guts and everything, shaking uncontrollably, when I was suddenly overpowered by what seemed like a platoon of men, women, and children solicitous for my health and general well-being. These proved to be folks from a nearby village across the Volga, two couples with their broods, relaxing in the womb of nature in the approved Russian manner.

They dragged me into their tent to sogretsya, an awful verb purporting to mean, innocently, "to get warm." In the event, I got warm to such an extent that I told them the whole sad story of my family rupture, to much enthusiastic, compassionate comment in four-letter Russian, even from the women, although the general consensus seemed to be that females were a pretty deadly species, and that I was well out of it. And that on the whole I had got off cheap: if I hadn't kept a grip on myself, I might have ended up in the clink. Easy.

Then we unaccountably swerved into politics, recalling how we had all used to love Yeltsin "for his sufferings," as Sasha, a railway guard built like a particularly well-muscled bull, put it, and what had happened to Russia and the people of Russia after the bastard had become czar, at which point the swearing assumed a sort of masterly sparkle.

After politics, religion. I was still trying to straighten out some of my confusion over faith, and I spoke on this at great length, grappling with the longer words, which by that time had become rather a hurdle. To this Sasha replied that we all turned to God when we got our asses in a cleft stick... He may have got the wrong idea, but I may be as mistaken about this as about everything else.

I don't remember what else we discussed, and "discuss" is perhaps too strong a word, for it was mostly yelling and laughter and tears and moist kisses by that time. I only recall an orphan-like thought drifting about at the back of my mind: I might drop on the ground anywhere in Russia, and I would be comforted, if there was anything to be comforted about, and even if there wasn't. I would feel warm anywhere here, like that guy said, whatsisname, he's dead now, let's drink to his eternal memory, and let earth lie as light as down on his chest...

Here I grew totally maudlin and went to get my entire supply of "hunter's sausage," really fine stuff, and handed it round, first to the kids, then to everybody else. It was clearly a rare delicacy to them, and I was touched to see them munch the things ecstatically.

In the meantime it had grown dark. The rainstorm had blown itself out. I made them memorize my address (what a hope!) and solemnly promise to pay me a return visit some time soon. Then I helped them pack their tent, nearly getting packed myself in the process. This was so funny that I had to extract Sasha's wife, helpless with laughter, from a stray bush which she had practically squashed under her Slavonic backside, although by that time only my Hussar charm and pride were keeping me vertical. After another round of indiscriminate kissing they roared off into the night in their motorboat, leaving me full of incandescent love for the whole human race. And all was peace.

I started putting up my tent and doing all the other camp chores, only my hands kept getting in each other's way, and every now and then I would stop and stare dully at some point in the air, besieged by all sorts of ideas about those eternal Russian questions, like Who is to blame? What is to be done? What's the score?

That was all rubbish, though. The real Russian question seemed to me to be Listen, man, do you respect me? These good folks apparently had an innate need to be respected or, let's put it crudely, loved. That was very touching, only you had to drink your way to the point where that question could properly be asked, and how was it to be answered? It was no good responding "Sure do, man," or "You bet your ass" or words to that effect. To do justice to the question, you must be prepared to square up and take on board a perfectly lethal dose of booze, usually vodka of the most gullet-scorching sort. Then there was the whole alcoholic repertoire to go through: settle between drinks the world's most pressing problems; discover the meaning of life, sex life and life-after-death included; share intimacies that would make your diary blush; shed a tear or two for some totally unsuitable subject; exchange slobbery kisses and, perhaps, just to round things off, a few punches. Over what? That's for you to puzzle out the following morning, along with sundry other issues, like who you are, and could it be you groaning so piteously, and why you should be alive when you never asked to be born in the first place.

I remembered someone telling me that half the American citizenry had never tasted alcohol. There was fine living for you. One wondered, though, what it was in aid of...

I crawled into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes, and the world instantly went into a dizzy spin. I could not even make out if it spun clockwise or counter, slipping down some funnel with a muted buzz. My eyes flew open. Feeling truly scared, I stared into the dark for a while, then crept outside and staggered towards the water's edge.

A huge shaggy moon hung low over the distant shore, looking absolutely primeval over a stand of similarly primeval, dark, shadowy trees. A dense mist hung over the water's surface like some special effect in a stage production of the sillier sort. My flesh crawled from the river damp or another attack of mysticism, not quite sure which. Must have been some cosmic force at play, for I felt it pluck at my inner strings, but the tune that came out was definitely jazzed up, as if a tipsy god were playing a fugue in ragtime. I listened awhile, then the mosquitoes and fear of a blistering hangover on the morrow drove me into the water. I churned the moonlit path, lap after lap, until I felt I'd had enough. When I stepped back on the little beach, I could not tell if I was shaking or reeling. I gave myself a vigorous rubdown and climbed back into my eiderdown sleeping bag, feeling warm and snug and about three years old.

I was afraid the world would start spinning cybernetic pirouettes again, but it merely did a half-twist off a spring-board and slid round a corner.


I was roused from sleep almost immediately by a Zulu doing the click song, the kind that carries over two miles, right in my tent. The thought drifted into my head that I was back in South Africa listening to Miriam Makeba, only that didn't seem right, for there was no Zulu in my tent, and I had never been to South Africa, not as far as I could remember. Which wasn't too far. I kept puzzling the riddle out while the clicker went on exploding his clicks right inside my skull. I started to snarl some obscenity. It was in Russian, and all things fell in place with another existential click. I was in Russia. I was to all intents and purposes Russian. And the singer was an innocent nightingale of the Russian plains, endowed with an excellent voice and sense of harmony but no tact to speak of. No idea about when to use that heavenly voice and when to shut up. "Shut up!" I bawled in a horrible, raucous voice, nearly taking off the top of my skull, but would you believe it? The melodist did not depart from the score by a single sixty-fourth. "Beat the bugger to a pulp," I decided, furiously unzipped the tent door, stuck my head outside... and froze just as I was, standing on all fours.

Yesterday's rainstorm had washed the world beautifully clean, and the sunshine now put a final gloss and polish on its slightly silly, smiling features, so that it looked like its own picture on the cover of a glamor magazine. Even Aeolus or whatever his name was held his breath in wonderment. Not a puff of wind, not a stirring of leaves. The eccentric upside down world in the river, clear in every shaded detail, looked even more irresistible than our more stolid Euclidean universe.

I barely caught my soul by the heel as it whooshed out of the body soaring up, up, up! I forgave the singer all its sins (a generous act it ignored completely), crawled out into the light of day and stood awhile, feeling myself dissolve in this paradise. I sighed for an Eve or two before breakfast, but those were but idle dreams, so I gave a Cossack yell and took a noisy running dive in the river.

Here I cavorted a long time, neighing and screaming and diving and shooting out of the water up to my waist, like a water-polo goalkeeper. And here I would like to leave myself quoting Faust, Stay, moment, thou art beautiful. The moment, however, just wouldn't. Stay, I mean. That was very sad, for when we are young, we believe that moments like this are as plentiful as rabbits in Australia, and all of a sudden they are all back in the past, leaping over the edge ­ down a stinking pit that is calling us all. You too, man.

Moral: don't grudge yourself a bit of gamboling, before the final entrechat, and let afterlife take care of itself.


(1) Incidentally, the novel (The Cruel Cruise, Moscow, 2011, originally written in English but published in Russian) got finished many years later. Ars longa, you know. Longa than one might have wished, anyway.

(2) Curiously, this particular passage was written long before The Da Vinci Code. That was not the reason, though, why I hated Dan Brown's concoction, an abomination in terms of taste and style, apart from all else. Bad enough to make one feel disappointed in the human race that falls for such trash.

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