Oct/Nov 2023  •   Nonfiction

Love Affair with an Old Russian

by Donna Cameron

Public domain image

Our affair began when I was sixteen.

My sister didn't come home from college for Thanksgiving. It was going to be just my mother and me, a dreary prospect. She invited her friend Dottie and Dottie's son, a college freshman, to make a foursome for Thanksgiving dinner.

As they approached our house, Dottie bearing a bottle of wine and packaged dinner rolls, her son carrying a pumpkin pie, Mom nudged me and said, "Isn't he a cutie?" Tall, red-headed, walking with a swagger. His clean-cut wholesomeness held not the slightest appeal to me. I shrugged.

The moms dominated dinner conversation, discussing mutual friends, their jobs, plans for Christmas. Occasionally, one lobbed a comment our way.

"Tell Donna about the classes you're taking," Dottie instructed her son.

"Donna, share your plans for college with us," Mom directed.

"I don't have any," I replied, shoveling stuffing into my mouth. Alas, the food was as uninspired as our conversation. Our answers were brief and monosyllabic. We were not unaware of their motive. They did all but gush over what a cute couple we'd make.

When dinner was over, we were sent to the living room while Mom and Dottie cleaned up. Avoiding the sofa or loveseat, we sat in the two hideously patterned chairs flanking a mahogany table.

Did he pull a book off our shelves, or did he have one with him? What relief to discover that he was disposed to reading. I picked up the book I had saved for the long weekend and within minutes was in love. Not with Dottie's son. I don't even remember his name. I could invent one, but his tenuous relevance to this story is over.

No, I was in love with Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. A few weeks before, my English teacher, seeing I was enraptured by Les Misérables, told me, "If you like Victor Hugo, you'd like Dostoevsky. Start with Crime and Punishment." I rushed to buy the book, a Bantam Classic paperback. At 60 cents, it was no small investment. The dark cover, depicting a shadowed face with hooded eyes and a grim mouth, drew me.

I sat in that chair long after Dottie and her son left, long after my mother went to bed, reading until my eyelids were so heavy, an invasion of Cossacks could not have kept me awake. Throughout the weekend, Dostoevsky and I were inseparable. I was in an altered state I never wanted to leave. I lamented Raskolnikov's fevered reflection: "Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth."

A new path opened before me. I knew books could provoke and delight and comfort, but until that weekend with Fyodor, I hadn't realized they could also pick me up and shake me so hard, when I touched ground again, I was a different person. It was a sensation I liked.

A year later, I selected a college with a Russian Literature and Language department. I took every Russian and Soviet literature class offered, some twice, as I completed my Comparative Lit major. Somehow, I graduated without ever having read Austen, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Dumas, Woolf, or countless other titans. It was Dostoevsky who taught me to see the allure of paradox and to weigh the sides, recognize contradictions, and come to my own conclusions. I nodded in recognition when the unnamed protagonist of Notes from Underground mused, "...the meaning of a man's life consists in proving to himself every minute that he's a man and not a piano key." Dostoevsky's characters were layered and complex, often unpredictable, acting against their own best interests and behaving in ways both inexplicable and uncannily fitting.

It was the same with The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Dostoevsky's other books. And though devoted steadfastly to Fyodor, I was also enchanted by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Bulgakov, and countless others. I studied Russian history, too, drawn to the Russian soul, which had been shaped by generations of suffering and deprivation, the struggle between east and west, ever ruled by tyrants.

Russian literature may not have offered a clear professional path, but it equipped me to think, reason, and write, which opened doors to challenging jobs and eventually a fulfilling career in the nonprofit world. A dozen years after college, I had an opportunity to co-lead a business delegation to the Soviet Union. We would travel to Leningrad—once St. Petersburg—where Dostoevsky spent much of his life. I asked our American travel agent if I could visit the churchyard where Dostoevsky is buried. She assured me it would be no problem. I needed only to tell our tour guide, and it would be added as an option for our one free afternoon.

The train from Helsinki to Leningrad took four hours. As soon as we crossed into Russia, I started crying and didn't stop until we arrived at the station in Leningrad. Much of the journey is across desolate, snow-covered steppes. I saw Zhivago traversing the miles of stark nothingness in search of his cherished Lara. I heard the hoofbeats of Sholokhov's Cossacks as they battled vainly to defend the customs and culture being torn from them. My tears were of joy and an inexplicable sense I was coming home.

Finally, we disembarked in the bustling Leningrad station. Our tour guide was Sonya, a trim, attractive woman in a navy-blue suit, tailored yellow blouse, and dark pumps. She greeted us warmly in perfect English and introduced us to the bus driver who would be with us throughout our four-day tour.

That evening at our group dinner, I asked Sonya how I could arrange to visit the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and see the churchyard where my hero is buried. Her reply was instantaneous: "No, it isn't possible."

"But, why?" I asked.

"Foreigners are not allowed there. It is not approved."

"But why?" I asked again.

Sonya repeated, "Foreigners are not allowed."

Daily, I asked Sonya if there wasn't some way I could go there, even just on my own. I would gladly pay extra. And she always replied with a firm "No." Soviet authorities did not allow American tourists to go just anywhere on their own. The cemetery was not approved for foreign visitors.

Lynn, my friend and business partner, knew how much it meant to me and he was as persistent as I. Sonya was equally firm with him: "There is no way. I am sorry."

Our days were full with tours and museums, our nights with concerts and the circus. Though I mourned not being able to visit Dostoevsky's grave, I savored every experience, from the cacophony of Russian voices, to the splendor of the Winter Palace, to my first taste of vodka.

For our final day in Leningrad, a farewell luncheon was arranged for our group at a downtown restaurant, not far from Nevsky Prospect, Leningrad's "Main Street." The combination of slow service, many toasts, and a tradition of leisurely eating guaranteed lunch would last at least three hours.

As we got off the bus, Lynn hung back to talk to our driver. When he joined the group a short time later, we were being seated in a private dining room. "Don't sit down," he whispered to his wife and me. "Our driver said he would take us to the cemetery." After settling our group, we told Sonya we would be back shortly. She looked at us curiously but said nothing.

Soon were rolling down Nevsky Prospect. A babushka was selling tickets at the entrance to the cemetery. I filled my hand with all the kopecks I had and held it out to her. She picked through, took a few coins, and waved me on. Lynn and Joye did the same. Not a word was exchanged. Snow crunched under our feet as we entered. Monuments marked nearly every grave. Not headstones like American cemeteries, but splendid sculptures, some of them ten feet high. Dostoevsky's was in one of the first rows we walked. As soon as I saw it, something inside me vaulted and I pressed my hands to my chest to contain my heart. Tears warmed my cheeks. Lynn and Joye patted my arm and walked on.

A larger-than-life bust of the great author marks Dostoevsky's grave. I stretched out a hand toward him, but the low fence circling his grave held me at a distance. His deep-set eyes pierced me, at once compassionate and fierce, gentle and penetrating. I recognized in his broad forehead and long beard the man I had spent so many glorious hours with. Was it the sculptor's genius or my own imagination? I felt recognized.

Someone had left a bouquet of freesias on the grave. The purple of the flowers gleamed against the white snow. I wished I had brought flowers. I had only words. Despite many years of studying Russian literature and history, I knew only a few phrases of the language. I whispered spasibo (thank you) over and over. "Thank you," I said to him. "Thank you for all you have given me. For the days and nights we've spent together, honing my intellect, shaping my spirit, awakening my passion." I gazed into the eyes of this man who had died more than one hundred years before, bound to him by the countless ways he had enlarged my life.

It was time to go. "Thank you," I repeated, in both Russian and English. Again, my tears tasted of homecoming. I joined my friends and we climbed back on the bus for the short ride back to the restaurant. We'd been advised that we couldn't give American currency or even rubles to "comrades" we might want to thank, so we should bring toiletries, "safe" books, candy, and souvenirs. Now, we filled our driver's hands with all our remaining trinkets: keychains, miniature flashlights, soap and after-shave, candy bars and gum. He thanked us as profusely as we were thanking him.

Then he turned us in.

We later learned that it was perfectly acceptable for him to take a bribe, and even to take us to a forbidden place, so long as he reported what he had done and who we were. He got our names from Sonya, and together they filed a report. We learned this the next morning when we were getting ready to board the train back to Helsinki. Sonya pulled us aside as we got off the bus at the train station.

"I just want you to know that what you did yesterday has been reported."

"What do you mean?" asked Lynn.

"The bus driver reported you to the authorities. He had to." Sonya paused and amended her sentence. "We had to."

Lynn, Joye, and I looked at each other, speechless. Finally, I asked, "Is he in trouble? Are you in trouble?"

Sonya looked at me kindly. Only an hour before, I had given her my copy of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. She'd mentioned that she loved British and American authors, particularly Jane Austen and Mark Twain. The Wharton thrilled her, especially when I told her it was one of my favorites, and that it bore a resemblance to Anna Karenina.

She smiled. "Don't worry. We are not in any trouble because we reported what you did. If we hadn't, and if someone had found out, then we'd be in trouble."

"Then, are we in trouble?" Joye asked. By now it had certainly occurred to each of us that it would look very bad if the leaders of this tour to the Soviet Union were detained, while the people we were supposedly leading were allowed to return to Finland.

"You have been reported as foreign deviants—"

"Deviants!" I squeaked. This must surely be the first time anyone has ever referred to me as a deviant. I was a good girl, a rule follower.

"Yes," Sonya continued. "You insisted upon deviating from the approved itinerary. That is suspect. There will be a file opened for each of you."

"A file... where?"

"With the authorities."

"The KGB?" I asked.

Sonya nodded. She pointed toward the bus where the driver had unloaded all the luggage. Our bags were the only ones remaining. "You must board." We thanked her and went to pick up our bags and present them for inspection before boarding the train. A half-hour later, the engine rumbled and we pulled out of the Leningrad Station, heading west.

There were no scheduled stops before Finland's border, but every time the train slowed or our compartment door opened, my stomach tottered as I imagined uniformed soldiers seizing and detaining us in Leningrad's Peter-Paul Fortress, where once my hero had been imprisoned and nearly executed for his radical leanings. Once or twice, though, my eyes met Lynn's or Joye's and we grinned conspiratorially. Yes, we would do it all over again.

This was 1986. A stone-faced colonel named Vladimir Putin was a senior intelligence officer in the fearsome KGB. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, reclaiming the name Russia, but still clinging to its autocratic past. The KGB, too, soon disappeared, replaced by other state security agencies. But I hope in some vault or dusty box, or on some aged strip of microfiche, there is a file bearing my name, alongside the Russian word for "deviant." For me, it translates to risk-taker, dream-catcher, lover.

These many decades later, I remain captivated by my old Russian. Dostoevsky still conveys me to a familiar spot inside where his stories, words, and ideas will forever reside. Time and distance cannot separate us. Some affairs last a lifetime.