“Maybe it’s your choice; maybe it’s your fate.”
My clock radio alarm went off, blaring the conclusion to an advertisement. A gray glow radiated through the bedroom curtain. Half-awake but still dizzy from insomnia’s fatigue, I punched the radio off, pawed for my glasses on the bedside table, and hooked them over my ears.
Beyond the bedroom curtain was a wall of snow.
The snow was thick even in the upper branches of the trees, and it seemed as if those trees were in a forest, not in a courtyard surrounded by apartment buildings. Until now, my third-floor apartment had been an oasis from the hugger-mugger passive-aggressive tussles of Moscow’s streets and subways. I would come back from doing the simplest things—buying a train ticket or finding a place to translate some poems at Pushkin Square—feeling like I’d been carrying a corpse on my back and stones in my mouth but hadn’t known it until taking off my shoes at the door, slipping on the tapochki, and shuffling into the kitchen, still woozy, but cozy at last.
Yet, looking out at the snowfall, I suddenly felt as if I were drowning at the bottom of a well.
There were so many reasons to feel weighed down by unseen forces in Russia. I was 22. It was 1993, and Russia was writhing under hyperinflation and the transition to post-Soviet reality. New Year’s Day had just passed, but it felt very much like the old year, and I felt no stronger for having survived my first Christmas holiday away from home, away from America. Instead, I felt more confused than ever. It didn’t help that I was being strong-armed again by my teacher, a thin-limbed, mustached Russian poet eleven years my senior.
The day before, Dima, whose poems counseled readers on the virtues of humility and weakness in the face of God and fate, had been two hours late to our meeting at the empty apartment we’d come to call the Den of the Voice. I took his lateness like a Russian. Which is to say, I leaned against the wall of the dimly lit stairwell and contemplated the peeling paint as a metaphor for the current state either of society or of my soul. I squinted out at the world the way a hibernating bear would look out of a cave in the middle of winter—gazing in a soporific stupor at whatever had disturbed his dream. The truth is, I hadn’t finished the translation of the poems by Dmitry Prigov and Timur Kibirov that Dima had asked me to complete, and when he finally arrived he, too, took it like a Russian.
“I was thinking,” Dima said when we were done going over the poems, “about what you should put in your fellowship report.”
Every few months, I’d send a project report to the Watson Foundation, updating them on my work. I cherished stepping back from the chaos of daily life in Russia and imagining what I might tell a stranger who had never been.
“You could talk about meeting with Yunna Morits and Nikolai Tryapkin,” Dima went on, “and how Russian poetry and the Russian soul continue to breathe, in spite of the free market, and to live in their own way.”
“Thanks, Dima,” I said, defensively. “I think I can figure it out.”
“Don’t forget about what I told you about the Russian Idea. We are searching, yet again, for the Russian Idea—”
“Why does there have to be only one?” I bristled.
“The Russian Idea,” he insisted.
Dima, like a good Russian and partisan of poetry, felt that his responsibility extended to advising me on how I told the story of Russian poetry. (Soviet, perhaps not coincidentally, means “advice” or “counsel.”) Like an American, I rebelled against his ideas—or rather, The Idea. I’d grown up thinking that a country’s myths were suspect, since our own myth of American exceptionalism—that our country was unique and superior to all other countries—blithely erased the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and African Americans.
Plus, it was my project. The whole point of the Watson Fellowship was to support a wanderjahr, a year’s wandering and wondering. I had come to Russia not only because I was utterly fascinated by its language, poetry, and culture, but also, in part, to escape being told what to do with my life. To listen, at last, to whatever internal stirrings I’d suppressed because of parental expectations and anxieties, academic requirements, social pressures, religious rules, or self-imposed demands. I wanted to choose what to say in my own way—that’s why I write poems. Yet, here in the Den of the Voice, Dima was trying to hijack my journey, telling me what to say.
When I heard the radio commercial the next morning, it felt prophetic.
Maybe it’s your choice; maybe it’s your fate.
Advertisements on Russian radio—which had, until recently, been a state-run enterprise—were still a novelty, even though it had been a couple of years since communism had collapsed. I don’t even remember what product this one was selling—let’s say it was hamburgers. The format of the ad, with its memorable tag line, was American, yet the content was purely Russian. This hamburger wasn’t merely something you wanted; it was something destined to come to you. The ad seemed to speak to how capitalism itself was at odds with the Russian spirit, which was so strongly immersed in a belief in fate. At the same time, the ad offered a magical union in which capitalism itself was Russianized and all material choices revealed themselves to have been fate.
I had never thought about fate as much as I did in Russia. I encountered it over and over in the lines of the Russian poetry that I was translating, as if drawn to the idea in my attempts to make sense of the chaos I witnessed in the streets. I found fate in lines to buy food or books, in cavernous metro stations, and on packed train platforms.
A week before I awoke to the wall of snow, I had waited for over two hours in a train station for a ticket to St. Petersburg. Finally, I’d arrived at the front of the line for the Petersburg overnight train to face a green-shirted, flame-haired woman, her face in profile at the low cashier window. I bowed at the waist, as these tiny windows require, to ask for my ticket in Russian—as if in supplication. She turned sourly and looked somewhere past my face, her thick hands folded together on the counter as she determined my fate. She knew immediately that I was not a Russian, as all Russians do.
“This line is for Russians. Only Russians. No one else,” she admonished me. “Go to that line.” She waved toward a centipede of people pressed against one another and extending endlessly into the station’s gloom. I could not even see the end of it.
Her face looked half-blank when she alerted me to my mistake, but it radiated a secret joy. I’d seen it many times in Russia—the moment when some miserable person suddenly finds herself with power over another miserable person and stands taller than the gods in triumph. Over the last several months, I had begun to wonder whether everyone (not just every Russian, but everyone) had a little Stalin inside, waiting for the right situation to emerge, when the right amount of distance and power and misery would suddenly give birth to monstrosity. Fellow Russophile Ian Frazier once described a worker who’d informed him that he’d just missed his train, writing that “the quiet way she savored giving out this disappointing news was a wonder to see.” The Germans call it schadenfreude, no doubt having seen it on the faces of Russians as they were retreating from the front. Not to be outdone, Russians also have a uniquely Russian word for it: злорадство (zloradstvo). The delight in others’ bad luck.
In that dismal train station, I hung my head in disbelief. Like a zombie, I began to stagger to the appointed line for foreigners. The truth is, I’d hoped to save a few rubles. There were good reasons for the two-tiered pricing system, I suppose, given the dramatic fall of the ruble and the sturdiness of the dollar. Yet it was this classic binary that I wanted to overcome by coming here: the Us and the Them. After all, I’d committed to living like a Russian, to waiting for trains and standing in line for tickets, to speaking Russian and dealing with post-Soviet bullshit bureaucracy (which was, after all, just Soviet bureaucracy) and all-around social breakdown. Every time I made a purchase that wasn’t on the black market, I felt like I was being punished doubly—once for living in Russia and once for being an American living in Russia. What a crazy thing to have done, fate seemed to say.
An older man with five-o’clock grizzle and a rumpled brown coat was standing in the line next to mine and had endured a parallel journey. When he saw what had happened, something stirred in him. His eyes were tired, but they were clear. He began to argue on my behalf.
“But he’s been in line for over two hours,” he protested. “Let him have the ticket.” Noticing the injustice, others began to chime in and badger the cashier. Here a rotund auntie was calling for human dignity, and there a thin man in a fedora was seconding her motion, and the nearby lines—lines that had been populated by the narcotized movement of bodies swaying imperceptibly forward—were now vibrating with the hubbub of human unease. It was as if, suddenly, at long last, despite all the days of being singled out as Other, I was one of them, all of us fighting against The Great Wall of No. And suddenly it seemed that fate might not win.
But The Flaming Hair of Fate dug in her heels, rising taller in her Great Refusal, though she never got up from her Throne (okay, standard Soviet stool) of Fate. She even shut the barred gate over her window temporarily, as if to prove her point.
The last name of the older man who’d first intervened was Ivanov. I know that because when he got to the front of his line, he bought an extra ticket, stamped with his name. He handed it to me furtively, so that The Flaming Hair of Fate could not see the exchange. I could barely believe his kindness to this stranger and could not thank him enough.
The whole ride back to the apartment, I kept thinking about the goodness of these people, about the uprising in the train station, about the future trip to St. Petersburg, where, I hoped, I would be free of the magnetic pull of fate, centered so powerfully in Moscow.
Neither Ivanov nor I could know what fate would pull next.
A few days later, Olya, the doyenne of the apartment I rented, pulled me by the arm through the train station and onto the snowy-wet platform. It was already nearing eleven p.m., when the train was due to leave for St. Petersburg, and she asked a conductor to help us locate my seat. It was a third-class ticket, and we found the train car ripe and packed with passengers. Everywhere I looked, people had already spread out, preparing to sleep on the upper or lower bunks or play cards or make mayhem.
Olya was tipsy and hiccupping from the champagne she’d imbibed earlier at her birthday party, and she was doting as usual over this foreigner and his lack of preparation for her people’s ways. But before we could worry too much over what might happen next, the train conductor said I couldn’t have that seat in the public sleeping car redolent of long-traveling humanity stacked like cordwood. He said that this ticket was purchased for a Russian named Ivanov and not an American named Metres, and that I could not be on this train, and now I wondered what might happen if fate decided, in fact, that I should never leave Moscow at all—not just for this trip to St. Petersburg, but to anywhere, ever again.
Olya protested, her voice rising amid her hiccups, her mother-feathers ruffling and her tongue hissing at the fox in conductor garb. Fate, that corrupt train conductor, then pulled me aside and offered me a completely empty sleeping compartment on the same train for the grand sum of five dollars. Under the table, of course. Olya backed down, suddenly sober, and hugged me farewell, to return to her apartment.
The rail-clattering train thucked its way through the dark north all night and into my dreams.
Of course, in St. Petersburg nothing was solved—not my insomnia nor my suffocating loneliness, not my sense of where Russia and Russian poetry were heading nor what I was meant to do with my study of it.
Upon my return, I told Dima about the train station incidents and The Flaming Hair of Fate. Dima was not only my mentor in translation; he was my guru of fate. Whenever I would share some bit of hardship, he always had some mysterious and beautiful way of seeing it as part of the Russian universe—as a characteristic, meaning-filled moment. I would resist, and we’d more or less reenact the arguments between the Tatar and the Explainer in Chekhov’s “In Exile.”
In the story, a young Tatar who has recently been exiled to Siberia misses his wife and family terribly. He wants to do anything he can to see them again, and volubly laments his situation. The Explainer, a man named Semyon, a veteran of Siberian exile, counsels him to forget his past life entirely and to just live in the now: “God grant everybody such a life.” He tells him an admonitory story about a young aristocrat who is exiled to Siberia for fraud. After a year, his wife and daughter relocate to Siberia. His attempts to recreate his former life cause misery for everyone; his wife ends up leaving with another man and his daughter catches consumption.
The Tatar refuses to accept Semyon’s wisdom. Chekhov writes: “Trembling, straining to find Russian words, of which he did not know many, and stammering, the Tatar began to say that God forbid he get sick in a foreign land, die and be put into the cold, rusty earth, that if his wife came to him, be it for a single day and even for a single hour, he would agree to suffer any torment for such happiness and would thank God.” The Tatar is simply unable to live in a world where he cannot be with his family. The story ends with the Tatar keening in the darkness as the Explainer snuggles in a hut with the rest of his Siberian comrades—Zen masters of loss, living in the terrifying Now.
When I—like the Tatar, missing my family and loved ones and utterly lost in this new place—told Dima of the latest saga, he did his best imitation of the Explainer.
He said, “It’s not your life.”
I started at this strange wisdom.
I’d been suckled on the milky promise of freedom, the honey of free choice, for my entire life. It’s America’s sweet wet dream. But how many times had I woken in America to a feeling of emptiness, of frustration, after something had failed to go the way I’d dreamed it? No cherished lover next to me, only the miserable pleasure of my own hands. I threw myself and my fists against many walls, still hearing the seductive whispers that everything was possible and slowly seeing that nothing would work out quite as I thought it should. All of my resistance to the pain—brought on by my flaws, limits, and failures—increased my suffering exponentially. I just couldn’t seem to accept the idea of fate, much less my own fate.
One night, I sat down to translate Arseny Tarkovsky’s “First Times Together,” a brilliant erotic dream of a poem. Two lovers wrap themselves around each other in a “realm / on the other side of the mirror.” After translating so many poems about the coarseness of life, I was surprised to find each line in this poem more beautiful than the previous. Even toward the end, fate seems clearly on the side of the lovers:
Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land….
But it’s all a bit too beautiful. Naturally, the poem wrenches us back to the cruelty of Russian life in its final couplet: “while behind us, fate followed / like a madman with a razor in his hand.”
Fate was everywhere in Russia. Everything around me seemed to suggest that the sooner I recognized how little was in my control, how little choice I had (as the logic of fate seemed to suggest), the sooner I could be at peace.
But when Dima invited himself into authoring my story for my fellowship report, I bristled because writing was the only place where I felt a modicum of freedom. I could not give up my own way of seeing, even if I didn’t yet have the words for it, and even if it would take my entire life to utter just one true sentence. I could not cede my story to someone else, even though it was cross-cut and shaped by so many others’ stories, whose lives were theirs to tell.
Dima had helped me translate ten contemporary poets and hundreds of poems. We’d wrestled with philosophy and folklore and history, but how these different poets fit into the larger picture of Russian poetry and culture was still a mystery to me. I realize now that my inability to form a full picture speaks volumes not only to the confusion of that time, but also to Dima’s Russian tendency to seek a single idea and purpose. In a country terribly used to monolithism, pluralism and its problems can seem like some kind of centerless and futureless chaos. Studying with Dima brought me to his “Russian Idea,” but the pieces didn’t quite fit.
I pulled back from our weekly meetings, knowing that there was another Russia, and another group of Russian poets I needed to discover—the avant-garde writers who were outside the frame of what Dima thought mattered. When Dima and I did get together, I tried to find the words to say thank you and goodbye and I’m sorry in the right order. I felt terrible pulling away, knowing how much the hard currency helped supplement his teacher’s salary.
True to the end, and stoic as a peasant, Dima took it like someone who believed in fate.
We kept in touch, though, working on the folk poetry of Nikolai Tryapkin that year. And later, we kept finding reasons to collaborate—in the late 1990s, on the work of Sergey Gandlevsky, and fifteen years after that, we met again in Russia to translate Arseny Tarkovsky’s poems. Over the years, we grew closer.
Dima gave me a basis for understanding what was happening to Russia from the perspective of a Russian—a Russian who loved Russia as an idea as much as as a country. He cared deeply about poetry and about his country and saw his patriotism not as an illness, but as a natural feeling for one’s people and one’s place.
Still, he had no love for corruption, brutality, or chauvinism, and he acknowledged that something ugly was unfolding in his country. Call it fate or call it free market, I could see it all around me: in the nastiness of Adidas-wearing mafia flexing their muscle against kiosk owners, in oligarchs racing around in tinted bulletproof Mercedes-Benzes, in the stiletto desperation of prostitutes on Tverskaya, and in the chaotic landfills and contaminated water in the countryside.
That day, facing the wall of snow outside, I didn’t go back to bed. I put on my clothes, had some tea, and took my time chewing over the black bread, so fragrant I can still, a quarter century later, find it in my nostrils. I put on my coat, scarf, hat, and finally my boots and descended the stairs to face the tundra and head to the local kiosk for some basic groceries. Outside, it was quiet, though people would pass on their silent journeys, with the stories they were making of their lives, which together made Russia.
Russia would continue to survive, beyond and perhaps even including the McDonald’s and Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum signs—the smiling advertisements of neoliberalism—that photobombed my picture of the Pushkin monument downtown. Something was happening on the lips and in the minds and bodies of these people, like Dima and his wife, Natasha, and Ivanov and Olya, and all the others. They were making and remaking a language that was anchored to this place, absorbing the new conditions as they came, struggling to survive, to make sense of everything. If that can be called fate, then I believe in something like it. It was happening all around us, in the yards and on the streets, in these people walking quietly through the arctic air of Moscow, often saying nothing at all, exhaling small ghosts of breath.