Alexei Makushinsky

writer, poet, essayist


Alexei Makushinsky: Steamship to Argentina, Chapter I.
Translated by Rowan Mackenzie-Kennedy

 When to our inexpressible amazement the Soviet regime began to falter and cracks suddenly started to appear in the rusted iron curtain, I set off on my first journey abroad, in the autumn of 1988, first taking the train to Paris, where I stayed for a month, then thumbing a lift to Freiburg, then on to Konstanz, to Munich and back to Konstanz, and from there – hitching again – to Dusseldorf, then finally from Dusseldorf to Cologne, where once again I found myself on a train, taking me back to Moscow. This second train I remember only vaguely, but the first train, the train to there, to unknown lands, the free world, will most likely remain in my memory for the rest of my life – although who can be sure of not eventually losing even their very best, very brightest memories? Once written down, memories have somewhat more of a chance of not perishing under the rubble of that oblivion which, like sand, buries every life, including my own. The desert grows, die Wüste wächst, wrote Nietzsche… Of the three people who saw me off at Belorussky station, two have already passed away. All four of us were standing – or at least this is how I remember it – on the platform, which was bathed in golden autumn light, albeit of course covered in spit and littered with scraps of paper and cigarette butts, and I, leaving – although not yet forever, but nevertheless as if this as yet initial and, in a sense, accidental departure already foreshadowed some other final, irrevocable, parting – already stood as though by myself, facing all those remaining behind, already separated from them by an invisible yet distinct boundary – which was immediately noted by the most ironic and probably the most insightful of the participants of the procedure. I then leapt onto the train with that carefree ease that we allow ourselves so willingly when we are young, stressing our readiness for adventure and escapades, tempted by the future, casting the past aside, parting easily, retreating into the blue distance. Life, simply put, changes but gradually, little by little, from promise to regret. 

 There was of course a guard on this train, at that time still the same old Soviet guard for the carriage headed abroad, that professionally faceless guard, in other words, in whom a lifetime of subjugation had taught us to see an agent of the secret police, which was why it was necessary, under the pretext of paying for tea, to win him over with the most generous tippossible, and in fact he did not hold back, throughout the entire journey supplying all those who so desired with quintessential railway tea in a glass with a glass-holder and two smooth lumps of sugar with the Kremlin towers on the wrapper - an eternal hallmark of Russian travel and one of the most comforting things on earth. It was then, under cover of paying for this tea, which had not yet been boiled or drunk, that was the time to give him about ten roubles – if not twenty-five (to slip him a quarter, as they would have said at the time). Such a very simple form of bribery of fate and the of the state authorities made more sense, however, if any at all, on the journey back, when the suitcase of an enlightened traveller could contain prohibited items such as precious YMCA-Press or Ardis publications, a three-volume edition of Mandelstam, 'Vekhi', Berdyaev or Zamyatin. It was thought that in exchange for your bribe the guard would direct the border guards and customs officials in Brest not to your compartment but to another, the next one along for example, so that they would rummage through that one instead. In 1988, however, the border guards and customs officials were already only interested in items of material value, such as tape recorders and synthesizers; they hardly ever looked for books anymore (and so, in the spiritual sense, they were ahead of their time, having skipped over the perestroika straight to the 90s). All the same, even on the way there it was best to avoid a shakedown – in fact, the quarter I handed (slipped) to the guard saved me from one, so that, after waiting in Brest during the never-ending changing of the wheels – I remember the carriage, hoisted up off the Russian rails, all hanging and hanging in the air, in a neutral and abstract space, before descending down onto the European tracks, – I was able, or, to be precise – could have been able to travel through boring and flat Poland calmly for an entire long day, which, alas, did not pass without a troublemaker, who brought new and different unrests. I do not know whether such carriages and compartments still exist today; in that already historical era, carriages headed abroad, practically unknown to ordinary Soviet citizens, were below the usual standard and consisted of very narrow compartments with two bunks – one above the other – with a seat at the opposite wall. Next to the seat was a door to a small washroom, saturated with the smell of cheap soap, which the occupants of one compartment shared with the occupants of the other, and how can one not remember that story by Bunin, in which the heroine, sometime during the magical year of 1911, leaving with her lover abroad, crosses from one compartment to the other though just such a room (under Soviet rule, strange or sad as it may seem, there still remained some final, precious echoes of the past – which immediately and definitively faded away, as soon as Soviet rule collapsed). The heroine, as we remember, was later shot in Vienna by another lover, an Austrian writer… There were first and second class compartments, and first class would become second if to two passengers a third was added, who would sleep on a folding bed, which during the day was fastened to the wall between the upper and lower beds, and at night would be folded down to hang from suspiciously tattered and filthy canvas straps; and so the three passengers would sleep one above the other, like how they probably sleep in the hold of some ocean steamer (sailing, for example, to Argentina…) the very poorest, most disfranchised passengers. The difference in price between first and second class was, by the way, fairly negligible. There would be, however, some vague alterations and rearrangements; for some reason or other someone would make their way from compartment to compartment, carriage to carriage; the guards evidently inventing something to their own advantage, as guards tend to do. I do not remember who I travelled with in the beginning, and then I was alone for some reason, and then, when we reached Poland, an ageing, bearded, tall Georgian artist appeared in my compartment, haughty, sweaty and impudent, whom I had already seen before lugging his enormous suitcases, trunks, boxes and paintings, wrapped in greyish yellow paper and tied up with dirty string, from carriage to carriage with the help of another, also bearded and, judging by his appearance, also an artist, but of a lower rank and stature, and his beard a bit thinner, accompanied by his pretty French wife with a noisy baby in her arms. Oh, you’re in here with us? asked the artist, proceeding to stare at me with such a look as if so incredibly surprised that even he could not describe the extent of his surprise at the presence here of some bespectacled young man with a French book in his hands. Rather, you’re in here with me, I said, looking up from Chateaubriand. Indeed, I began to smell trouble. The artist, bringing his entire retinue into the compartment, with all their trunks, boxes, cases and paintings – they were leaving for good it seemed – demanded that the third bunk be lowered so that everything could be put on it; I pointed out that we were not in the baggage car and that, what’s more, I had paid for first class. The smell of trouble grew stronger. The artist replied that it was not as though we were going off to the Civil War and told me to be patient. I retorted, quickly enough, that to my knowledge the Civil War had ended and that I did not appreciate being addressed in such a familiar manner. The French wife joined in. The veneer of civilisation (de la civilisation) peels off representatives of the enlightened nation, man or woman, surprisingly easily when something is not to their liking. 

 The twenty-five roubles that I had handed, or rather slipped to the faceless and compliant guard the previous evening had the desired effect; after moving with his help to another compartment, where a free place had miraculously appeared, I very pleasantly spent the rest of the day talking to a rather pretty young woman with ringlets and freckles – although she smelt of tobacco and had rather scary yellow fingers (her fingers were thirty years older than the rest of her…) – who it turned out had worked as an editor at the film studio ‘Mosfilm’, where I myself had also once worked for six months as a director’s assistant (with the clapperboard) – one of the craziest and perhaps most pointless episodes of what was, as I imagine everyone’s is, a crazy and pointless youth, – and so I actually had something and someone to talk (or rather gossip) about with her while sitting in the compartment, flat Poland sailing by outside the window, or when we went out to smoke in the space between the carriages, stale with the smell of all the cigarettes smoked there – all the butts stubbed out, crushed and thrown into the provided bucket, flat Poland sailing by all the while through a dirty little smoke-blackened window, – the space where my fellow traveller nobly retreated without me, late in the evening, after we had crossed the miserable Polish-GDR border – Paßkontrolle! a torch shone right in the mug, and had travelled through the indistinct, eastern outskirts of the country of true socialism, doomed soon to vanish, through East Berlin, terrible, dark, and which seemed to have been abandoned by everyone, both people and even ghosts, and had gone through the routine Paßkontrolle, we finally entered West Berlin, shining with all the lights of freedom, and my old friend Manfred L. appeared on the platform outside the window, a bottle of Mumm champagne in his left hand and a pair of slim glasses – stems crossed –  in his right. We drank this champagne together during the short stretch between Berlin-Zoo and Berlin-Wannsee stations, where, before the train retreated once again into the darkness of the GDR, Manfred alighted and I watched from the window for five more minutes – for some reason the train did not set off – as he explained himself to a railway official who had appeared from nowhere on the completely empty platform, for some reason wanting to check his ticket. Manfred, still young then, in a worn leather jacket and the most ridiculous yellow trousers, was waving at me with one hand, still holding the crossed glasses, and with his other free hand was showing the official that he had already thrown away his ticket, or more precisely how he had thrown away his ticket, entirely hypothetically of course: over his shoulder, with a bold, quick stroke of a hand, reddened by the evening wind, which, again and again and with puppet-like speed, appeared from and disappeared again down the short sleeve of his leather jacket. When the train finally set off, Manfred continued to stand and wave, with one hand at me, left-right, and with the other over his shoulder for the official, who clearly did not believe him, but whose eyes were all the same darting continuously along the platform in the hope of perhaps spotting the ticket, which had been swept away for always and forevermore by the backdraught of the locomotive of imagination.

 In the morning Cologne cathedral was already visible from the window; then came Belgium, in a gold and crimson blaze of autumn which seemed so beautiful to me then, as it never did afterwards, and the train quietly, no longer in a hurry and no longer swaying, finally bid farewell to the Russian manner of rattling on the joints of the rails and sailed along some canals, or along the Meuse, I no longer remember, brick houses blazing in the sun on the other shore; and at some stations, where we would stop for a moment, cheerful railway workers, sitting all as one man on benches, openly idling about, either smoking or eating their sandwiches, unwrapping them from foil that also gleamed in the sun, and shouted to the guards standing in the carriage doors, who also seemed to have mellowed after entering the free world, ça va? ça va? (which means how are you?), and the guards, exchanging glances and pointing out the silly foreigners to each other in good-natured contempt, shouted in reply, echoing them with sova, sova, (the Russian word for owl), followed by filin, filin…, (another word for that same bird), gaining such joy from their own guileless humour that one of the men shouting from there, from that side of the invisible, already leaky, but still very much iron, curtain, began in the end also to shout in reply something not unlike: philine, philine..., apparently assuming that in Russian this meant: hello, bye, or possibly even fuck you…, and least of all thinking, of course, about unforgettable Philine from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, about whom I, an involuntary witness to the whole scene, could not help thinking for the rest of the journey, not only because at that time I considered Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship to be the most important European novel and would reread it again and again, but most of all because I, still then only twenty-eight years old, at the end of my youth, felt myself – not suspecting that very soon I would stop feeling like this – to be the hero of the Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister, embarking on a journey in search of adventure and of himself, ready to meet any Philine, Mignon, Natalie, the harper, Laertes or Jarno, a member of a reasonable movement in which all dissonances, so to speak, must certainly be resolved sometime – very soon! – and to meet with all-encompassing, all-justifying harmony; and since our carriage, forever coupled to new and different trains, ended up being at the end, I remember standing for a long time in the rear of the train gazing at the same sun-drenched hills, majestic blazing forests, one fairy-tale castle and then another, no less magical, all running away and vanishing, as though falling away somewhere behind us; and afterwards, after returning from this journey, I very often thought to myself what it would be like if I – or anyone – ran and jumped from the train, for instance, or simply got off at the station, in the middle of this mythical landscape, this Belgium dreamt up by someone (the beginning of an adventure in the medieval and chivalric sense; a hero setting off in search of himself and the Holy Grail…), I thought about all this so often that in the end, probably after about two years, I saw it all in a dream, in one of those very brightest, most important dreams which somewhat release us for life, of which I have had perhaps only two or three in my life, and in this dream, when I tried to open the back door behind which the mythical hills were still speeding and speeding away into oblivion, the guard appeared behind me, still the same faceless guard in the dream as in real life, and politely and cajolingly asked me not to touch the door, I would not be able to open it anyway, but most importantly – he, the guard, has pledged, and therefore must take me without fail, he said for some reason, to Lutetia, where as a matter of fact I myself also want to go, and rightly so: Lutetia, said the guard in my dream, finally switching to Latin, is the greatest and most beautiful city on earth. Lutetia Parisiorum, said and repeated the guard, urbs grandissima atque pulcherrima est.

© Alexei Makushinsky, 2015-2023
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