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Reeling in Russia
By Fen Montaigne
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 Fen Montaigne
All right reserved.
A name can exert a strange pull. Such was the case for me with Anzer.
Four years earlier, while working as a Moscow correspondent, I had visited the Solovetsky Islands in late September with Brodsky, who had devoted his life to studying the archipelago and its role as progenitor of the gulag. Like Brodsky, I instantly fell for the place, drawn to its wild, unsullied coastline, its architecture, its crystalline northern light, its hundreds of lakes and ponds, its tragic past. Brodsky and I spent several days poking around the main island. On the day before we were to leave, we rode in a boat down the coast to a spit of land just a half dozen miles from Anzer. A nature preserve, Anzer had been uninhabited for half a century. In summer, Brodsky would live there for weeks in a nineteenth-century cabin, photographing the vestiges of monastery buildings and the gulag. He was anxious to show me the island, and we were both disappointed when the wind kicked up, whitecaps appeared on the sea, and it became impossible to motor to Anzer--plainly visible a few miles away--in a small skiff. Flying to Moscow the next day, Brodsky said to me, "Well, you'll just have to come back, and we'll make it to Anzer."
In mid-1993, after completing my three-year tour as Moscow correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I came home to America with my family. I did not communicate with Brodsky for nearly two years. He refused, however, to lose contact with me. Two or three times a year, I would receive a small, brown envelope in the mail. Inside would be several photographs of Solovetsky Island scenes. Scrawled on the back were short notes, ending with these words: "Anzer awaits!"
Ever since my homecoming, I had been pestered by a desire to return to Russia, and Anzer became a symbol of that longing. To some foreigners, Russia was anathema, a place grim beyond description. But to others, such as myself, Russia was an affliction, an incurable habit. From the very beginning, I was drawn to her dilapidated landscape, inhabited by people who knew hardship as intimately as we might a member of the family.
I first set foot in the former Soviet Union in November 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was crumbling and Communism was vanishing across Eastern Europe. Driving from Sheremetyevo Airport to downtown Moscow, I felt I had landed in another dimension. It was 5 P.M. and pitch-dark. Bundled-up figures with shopping bags shuffled down ill-lit, impossibly wide avenues. There was no color, few cars, oppressive Stalinist architecture. The capital reminded me of a city at war, under blackout. I loved it.
The next morning, emerging from a shoddy concrete high-rise onto October Square, I was confronted by an enormous statue of Lenin, his overcoat billowing out in a flourish of socialist realism. There were few stores, no advertisements, neat little kiosks selling Pravda, theater tickets, and ice cream. Black Volga sedans shot down sparsely trafficked streets, emitting a distinctive guttural, coughing sound every time their drivers shifted gears.
I walked into the metro station and was pushed toward a steep escalator, seventy-five yards long. Riding down the creaking, vertiginous contraption, I watched the parade of people coming up the opposite escalator, their worn, gray faces reflecting the toll that life in the Soviet Union had taken on its citizens. The subway station was handsome and clean. I will never forget the smell of the car as I crammed into it with dozens of Russians. It was a pungent, sour melange of garlic, unwashed bodies, vodka, musty woolen overcoats, and Bulgarian tobacco. For me, that fragrance would forever be linked with Russia.
I spent the next several years covering the reign and fall of Mikhail Gorbachev, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rebirth of a capitalist Russia. Witnessing these events and writing about them made a deep impression. Once back in America, where I was edging toward leaving the newspaper business, my desire to revisit Russia grew. I missed the people, missed speaking the language. I wanted to travel through the vast swaths of territory I had not seen as a correspondent, spending time not in cities, but in the Russian countryside, a haunted, lovely place of timeworn villages, sprawling garden plots, and ruined brick Orthodox churches. It had always been my favorite part of Russia, far from the legions of mobsters and nouveau riche businessmen who had popped up all across the country. Visiting rural Russia was like time travel; much of it--especially Siberia--was reminiscent of the American West in the late nineteenth century, a boundless expanse of forests and plains where many people still lived close to the land in log cabins, growing and catching much of their food.
Unconstrained by pressures of time and work, and driven by an ill-starred desire to plumb the depths of the Russian psyche, I wanted to lose myself in the Russian countryside.
The idea for the trip came to me on a winter afternoon. Since returning from Moscow, I had combined my passion for fishing and hunting with work and had taken to writing about the outdoors. I was contemplating the fly-fishing opportunities in Russia--Atlantic salmon on the Kola Peninsula; taimen, a legendary, salmonlike fish found in Siberia; grayling on Lake Baikal; steelhead trout on the wild, tundra rivers of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. I realized what I had to do. Beginning on Anzer, I would fly-fish from one end of Russia to the other. Few countries offered the angling opportunities that existed there, and with the right documents I could do what was once unthinkable--traverse all ten time zones of this enormous land, wandering where I pleased. Vast regions, as huge and wild as Alaska, were now open to anyone foolhardy enough to ramble into them.
From the start, I knew I wasn't so much after fish as I was after a glimpse of Russia from the bottom up. My fly rod would be my divining stick, defining my route and taking me places few other Westerners had trod. Almost no one fly-fished in Russia--the practitioners of the sport numbered only in the hundreds--and I imagined that brandishing a fly rod would ease my way into village life. For Russians loved to fish, many using long poles called udochki. No matter how befouled a river or lake, there usually was a Russian standing on its banks, dipping his worm into a rainbow sheen of pollution in the hopes of catching some stunted perch or pike. And though fishermen are legendary prevaricators, I figured there was no finer group to guide me through this vast "wonderland," as Russians sardonically referred to their cursed, puzzling country.
As it turned out, the fly rod opened more doors than I could have imagined.
The fishing was not at all what I had expected.
And the Russian countryside? It was a world turned on its head, inhabited by people abandoned by their government and fending for themselves.
"God is a long way up," goes the old Russian proverb, "and the czar a long way off."
A dusty, golden three-quarter moon hovered over Moscow as I rode at midnight to the Leningrad Station. The Garden Ring Road encircling the city center was nearly deserted, in merciful contrast to the eye-stinging traffic jams that paralyzed the ten-lane asphalt band during the daytime. I had flown into Moscow the day before--election day--and Boris Yeltsin had just won a second term as president, soundly beating his cretinous Communist opponent. With that vote, the country may have turned its back once and for all on its Bolshevik past. But the occasion felt less than historic. Many people had cast their ballots, then headed on a sunny, breezy day to their dachas. Muscovites were weary of making history.
Leningrad Station, encased in scaffolding, was the scene of chaotic bustle generally associated with the movement of wartime refugees. Travelers staggered under the weight of massive sacks. People elbowed one another aside at ticket windows amid grunts and recriminations. Squadrons of unkempt, weary-looking Russians stood near rows of the ubiquitous kiosks, drinking beer and shots of vodka. Men hacked out wads of tubercular phlegm on the sidewalk. Gazing at these lost souls, I was amazed that the abysmally low life expectancy of Russian men--fifty-eight--wasn't even lower.
I stood by the green and red cars of Train Number 20, the overnight express to St. Petersburg. The conductors were firing up the little boilers that heated their cars' tea water, and the smell of coal smoke wafted over the platform. The scent set off a chain reaction of memories, and I recalled countless Russian train rides, nights when I stood on platforms slick with black ice, ready to board an express to some disintegrating quadrant of the Soviet empire.
This time, I was waiting for Yuri Brodsky. We were going, at last, to Anzer.
Yuri's love of the Solovetsky Islands had fascinated me ever since I had first met him five years before. In twenty-five years, he had taken thousands of photographs, spent countless hours in archives, interviewed scores of survivors of the Solovki camps, and whiled away months on the islands wandering through the ruins of Stalin's prisons. He resembled an obsessed archaeologist, slowly piecing together disparate shards of history--scrawled messages on walls, graves in dense forest, early newspapers from the camps--into a devastating picture of the genesis of Stalin's terror.
Now, his labor of love had been reposited in a dense, riveting book of more than six hundred pages, a tome crammed with photographs, archival documents, and reminiscences. It was probably the single most exhaustive volume ever produced on one of Stalin's camps, and Brodsky had absolutely no guarantee it would ever see the light of day. He had been searching for a publisher for several years, but in the jaded era that followed glasnost and the implosion of the USSR, Russian publishers were hardly scrambling to bring such material to light.
From the beginning, I liked Yuri Brodsky because he was such a gentle soul. Although I never heard him speak of God or his native Judaism, he had the tranquil air of a religious seeker. He was short and slight, with a full head of hair and neatly trimmed beard. In the time I had known him, both hair and beard had gone from salt-and-pepper to silver. Brodsky smiled often, and when he did, his head tilted slightly and his eyes nearly narrowed shut. In conversation, Brodsky, who was fifty-one, often emitted an endearing noise, a kind of throat-clearing, affirmative "Hmmmmm." He was well loved, in part because of his habit of constantly dispensing little presents to friends and strangers. His pockets were crammed with candy that he bestowed upon children, shopkeepers, and bureaucrats, friendly and unfriendly alike. Yuri's quiet charm could win over even the hardest Russian heart. Women were strongly drawn to him, and I think it was because he was simply a kindhearted man in a land where many men, often under the influence of alcohol, treated their women so shabbily.
Fifteen minutes before the train's 1 A.M. departure, Brodsky came strolling down the platform, a knapsack on his back. Piling into our two-person compartment, we talked nonstop; there was a lot of catching up to do. Yuri's life was insane in a peculiarly Russian way. He had been estranged from his wife for twenty years, yet because of the dire shortage of housing in Russia, had continued to live with her in the same small apartment in the town of Electrostal, about thirty-five miles from Moscow. Their twenty-year-old daughter was crammed into the apartment as well. Yuri had a girlfriend in Moscow, who surprised him the previous year with the news she was pregnant with his child. He was supporting his girlfriend, his baby, and his grown daughter on the 1.3 million rubles--about $260--he received each month from his job as photographer at a plant that made components for nuclear reactors. He also earned extra money from his freelance photography. This unorthodox and tenuous state of affairs seemed to trouble him only slightly. I would have come unglued years ago.
As we prepared for sleep, the conductress opened the door to our compartment. She handed us a short stick, which she told us to jam into the door to deter robbers. She said the gassings that had once plagued the Moscow-St. Petersburg trains--enterprising thieves would open the door in the middle of the night, anesthetize you, and strip you of everything but your Skivvies--had almost stopped. But common thieves, armed with master keys, were still a problem.
St. Petersburg sparkled the next morning under uncommonly blue skies and balmy temperatures. As our train moved through the suburbs, I spied fishermen with cloth caps and long wooden rods trying to conjure up fish from stagnant, debris-strewn canals. Their efforts were testimony that anglers everywhere will chase fish under any conditions, no matter how dismal.
At seven that evening, Brodsky and I boarded the Polar Express, the St. Petersburg-Murmansk train that would take us up the Karelian coast toward Solovki. We headed north through a landscape of swamps and birch forests, passing villages where wooden houses and log cabins, faded to a drab gray and listing slightly, lined dirt streets. At seven-thirty, Yuri and I went to the dining car, where the service and the food reeked of the USSR.
In one booth, with red seats and a red tablecloth, a pair of policemen sat and perused the newspaper. Nearby, several young men slouched in their seats, drinking beer and soda. One of the them--a slender, dark-haired, effeminate man with a blue sport coat--was our waiter. He waltzed up and, with a frown, asked us if we wanted to eat, as if we had come to the dining car for some other purpose. He tossed two menus on the table and hovered. About twenty items were on the bill of fare, including beef Stroganoff and grilled Georgian chicken.
"Do you have all of these items?" I inquired, knowing the answer.
"All we have is chicken legs or fried eggs," he sniffed. Then he tapped his watch and said, "The time."
"But the sign says you don't close until eleven-thirty," said Brodsky.
"We're closing early tonight," the waiter shot back.
"I'd like four fried eggs, well done, not runny," I said. Brodsky ordered the same. We munched on stale bread infused with a powerful chemical taste. Even though we were the only people eating in the dining car, it took the waiter fifteen minutes to sashay back to our table with the eggs. They were nearly raw.
"I wanted these well done," I said.
He looked at me with revulsion. Then, with an impatient wave of his hand, he replied, "All you had to tell me, then, was to cook them on both sides."
We got our eggs finally, well done and foul, cooked in rancid sunflower oil with bits of tomato. I ate half the plate, then lost my appetite.
The night was restless, the train lurching, cars clanging. At 10 A.M. on a Saturday morning, we pulled into Kem, the port on the Karelian coast that was the major transshipment point to the Solovetsky gulag. Under warm, sunny skies, we rode five miles in a taxi to the docks, where the weekly rust bucket departed for Solovki. Inhaling the salt air, gazing at the hilly islands that lay between us and the open sea, Brodsky and I began decompressing from the bustle of the mainland.
We had six hours before our departure. Brodsky had heard of a St. Petersburg man who had come to Kem, started a lumber mill, and opened a little museum about the Solovetsky gulag. We decided to find him.
The Kem port area was an odd spot, chiefly because it was built on water. Soviet engineers had dumped logs in the harbor, covered them with wood chips, then sprinkled a layer of soil on top. The entire area looked as if it were perched on a thatched roof. Near the docks, a lumber mill, built with Italian and Canadian technology, sat idle, rusting equipment littering the grounds. Farther on, weather-worn wooden cottages sprouted from the landscape. In front of them, on raised platforms, sat wooden and metal barrels, which the local government filled regularly with water, since wells were an impossibility. This section of Kem, like most Russian villages, had no running water or sewage system.
On this glorious Saturday morning, women in flowered housedresses and kerchiefs were out in force, hoes in hand, working in their potato gardens. All summer and fall, from the White Sea to the Pacific Ocean, I was confronted again and again with one enduring image: Russians tending their potato patches. At times, the country seemed like a vast potato field. People toiled for good reason: in rural Russia, a large garden meant the difference between a full stomach and a growling one.
Four young men weaved down the dirt main street, their faces assuming the crimson, contorted aspect of the hard-core alcoholic. At last we found the museum and home of Yevgeny Nikonov and rapped on the door. Nikonov answered. He was a well-built man of fifty-five with curly brown hair and mustache, blue eyes, and the de rigueur duds of Russian men that summer--a cheap, Chinese-made jogging suit. For a few seconds, Nikonov eyed us skeptically, incredulous that the Solovki expert, Yuri Brodsky, and an American journalist had actually landed on his doorstep. He quickly recovered, however, and enthusiastically ushered us into a sunny office.
Nikonov began dealing out different business cards, identifying him variously as a mining engineer, a member of an international charitable group, and--most recently--as head of something called the Karelian Fund of Humanitarian initiatives. I began to fear we had stumbled upon a flake, but it soon became evident he was merely an affable man living a timeless Russian tale--that of a cultured, middle-class intellectual cohabitating with considerable unease among the great vodka-swilling unwashed of provincial Russia.
Nikonov had spent much of his career at a metallurgical plant in Leningrad. Five years ago, he had moved to Kem and the Karelian coast, where he received his initiation into the ways of post-Communist country living. At first, the sizable contingent of local alcoholics rapped ceaselessly on his door, seeking vodka handouts. When he opened a small lumber mill, he was plagued by drunken workers.
"The average worker typically wants to earn only enough for one bottle of vodka a day, two packs of cigarettes, and a little food," said Nikonov, as his tall, comely wife served us sausage, cheese, and bread. "If you pay him more, he'll drink a second bottle and not come to work the next day. Very few people want to work and save like in your country."
Firing dipsomaniacs and refusing them vodka had had its repercussions for Nikonov. The local ne'er-do-wells had robbed the store attached to his house--an establishment run by his sister--several times. His house and small, weather-beaten sailboat had been vandalized. Yet Nikonov claimed to be happy in this backwater on the White Sea and, like many Russians, had reconciled himself to the reality that world-class boozing and ingrained, Communist work habits had doomed the countryside to backwardness for years to come.
We toured his little museum, a modest, one-room exhibit that must have, I feared, received precious few visitors. Then it was time to go. He shook our hands passionately and left me with these words from turn-of-the-century poet Aleksei K. Tolstoi: "The country is big and rich, and there's no order in sight."
The weekly boat to Solovki, an eighty-foot former navy vessel, shoved off at four-fifteen, stirring up a muddy backwash as the captain played Ravel's Bolero from a boom box. We cruised at fifteen miles an hour over the dark water, threaded our way through small, rocky islands, then emerged into the open White Sea. Arctic terns hovered frantically over the water, then plunged in, emerging with small, silver fish in their beaks. The sun went in and out behind thick, white clouds, and the air temperature fell to that of the sea--about forty-five degrees.
The trip to Solovki took two and a half hours. Ten miles from shore the monastery and surrounding walls came into view, looming larger as we approached. I had never arrived on the islands from the sea, and as we chugged toward the main harbor--the Bay of Prosperity--I understood better why this place had come to occupy the central place in Yuri's soul. All around were the frigid and vaguely menacing waters of the White Sea. And at the center of it all was a great Russian monument--the monastery--that had been the seed from which Stalin's terror sprouted. Several hundred thousand prisoners passed through the camps in and around Solovki from 1923 to 1939, when the islands' gulag was shut down. As many as forty thousand people perished. By the time the gulag had metastasized eastward, all the way to the Bering Sea, an estimated 10 million to 20 million people are believed to have died at the hands of Stalin's secret police and in forced famines.
We cruised past the ruined, whitewashed brick shell of the former gulag administration building and docked a stone's throw from the tin-roofed buildings of the monastery.
The Solovetsky islands possess an air of splendid detachment, and life there moves at a glacial pace. There are few cars. Motorcycles with sidecars are more common, but for long stretches of time you don't hear an internal combustion engine, save for the diesel-fired generator that supplies electricity to the town. The main hamlet is a ragtag collection of old barracks, faded log cottages, tilting picket fences, peeling, whitewashed wooden barns, and here and there, long root cellars on top of which sprout yellow wildflowers. Cattle graze the hillsides. In the center of the village, by the roadside, sit long, hollowed-out cypress logs from the sixteenth century, part of the original water system designed by the island's monks. The population of the island is dwindling gradually as the Solovetsky Museum loses funding and lays off workers, the seaweed processing plant works fitfully, and the island fishing fleet, like many industries in Russia, stands idle.
We dropped our luggage at Brodsky's small apartment in a two-story, wood-frame building and headed for the weekly communal bath, a ritual in the Russian countryside. On the Solovetsky Islands, the men scrub up on Saturdays, the women on Sundays. Like nearly everything else on the islands, the Beletskaya bath is old, dating to 1717. We entered through a one-story, ash-colored, wooden building that was showing its age. A woman with gold teeth greeted Yuri with a smile and asked how he'd been; nearly everyone on the island knew Brodsky, and as we walked the dirt streets, we rarely went one hundred yards without someone stopping to say hello. The woman collected five thousand rubles, about $1, from each of us, and we entered a commodious drying room, where naked men with bright pink skin cooled off on green wooden benches. Brodsky and I stripped and walked through a door into the main washing room, a dank, steamy, cacophonous chamber with vaulted ceilings. Kids whirred around on floors slick with slime, soap foam, and bits of birch leaves.
In this outer sanctum, men grabbed metal basins and filled them with water from hot and cold spigots covered in peeling tape. They sloshed the water over their bodies, lathered extravagantly with soap, then rinsed off by overturning the basins on their heads. Some shaved, others soaped up their squirming sons. Most of the men had the wiry physiques common to members of a society where manual labor is still the norm and McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts are not. The bathers bantered loudly; this was the communal ritual of the week, and a great leveler.
Brodsky and I entered the steam room, an inferno about the size of a two-car garage. Men sat on several tiers of benches, flaying one another with bunches of birch leaves. Occasionally someone would toss a ladleful of water on a mountain of hot stones in the corner. A long, locomotive hiss would ensue, and a cloud of hot steam would refract off the concrete ceiling and scald your shoulders. The scorching fog was so thick you couldn't make out the features of a fellow sitting five feet away. As the bathers lashed themselves with the birch twigs, bits of the vegetation and droplets of sweat were sprayed around the room. After two minutes in the steam chamber, sweat began to flow in rivulets from every pore in my body, dripping steadily from my fingertips. I endured it until I felt I was on the verge of blacking out, then exited the chamber, soaped up, and poured tubs of cold water over my burning hide. We toweled off in the drying room. Sweat continued to seep out of me long after leaving the steam chamber.
As I walked out of the drying room, the gold-toothed attendant pronounced the traditional postbath greeting--"With light steam!"--and I gulped down a glass of pineapple juice for a dime.
I had heard intriguing tales about angling on the islands, particularly that the canals of Solovki, built over the past five hundred years by monks, still held a small number of Solovetsky trout. Stocked a century or two ago, the small trout--the size of eastern-American brook trout--reportedly could still be caught on a dry fly in the narrow canals. There had been regular sightings of these creatures, but in recent years few had been caught. Some locals said the fish were long gone.
Later that night, I decided to scout one of the waterways in which the elusive Solovki canal trout allegedly dwelled. Around eleven, I walked through the quiet town. A slanting, gold and silver sunset appeared from under the patchy clouds, suffusing the landscape of gentle hills and gardens with a translucent light. A boy tended three goats near one of the small, white, stucco chapels that lay outside the Kremlin walls. Not far away, on the shores of Holy Lake, a couple did their laundry in the icy water. At the harbor, where several rusting metal boats sat at anchor, a half dozen people ringed an old, stone canal lock and jigged for herring. Little in this scene suggested the twentieth century, and this very quality drew me to rural Russia. This was the selfish conceit of the traveler. What to me was a charming lack of modernity was, to the Russians who inhabited this landscape, a world of outhouses, of water hauled from wells, of endless chopping of firewood, of constant digging in gardens so there would be enough potatoes and pickled cabbage to last the winter.
I found one of the Solovki canals around midnight and was simultaneously disappointed and intrigued. No more than five feet wide, the canal meandered through meadows, cut behind several homes, and flowed into one end of Holy Lake, in the shadow of the monastery. A rickety wooden footbridge crossed the canal, reminiscent of a stream in the English countryside. I saw no fish, but resolved to return the next day with my fly rod.
Around noon, under clear, warm skies, I stood near Holy Lake and suited up. I put on my new $365 Simms Gore-Tex breathable Guide waders and my new $90 L. L. Bean Aqua Sole wading boots. I slipped my $60 fly-fishing vest over my $85 Patagonia fleece shirt. I assembled my new $465, three-piece, Sage Light Line, 5-weight trout rod, attached my $175 Lamson reel to it, strung the rod with my new $50 Joan Wulff Triangle Taper floating fly line, and attached one of the three hundred flies I had purchased--at about $2 a pop--for the trip. I stood there in the latest, highest-tech, most expensive fly-fishing gear our great country had to offer at the end of the twentieth century and felt like a fool. Several Russians wandered by and looked at me with a mix of curiosity and alarm. The sport was so rarely practiced in Russia that it still went by the charming, archaic name of fishing "with a buggy whip."
Standing on the shore, I enjoyed the feel of the fly line unfurling on the calm surface of the small lake. I had been fly-fishing for only a few years, but one of the great pleasures--and tortures--of the sport was trying to master the art of casting. The fundamental principle of fly-fishing is that the angler uses a thick line and a long, springy rod to propel a nearly weightless fly to a waiting fish, preferably a trout. This is easier said than done, and I had spent many frustrating hours making spastic casts--snapping off flies and fouling the line in trees--before gradually beginning to feel the right casting rhythm, which was slower than my hyperactive system was inclined to permit. Now, as I ascended from the ranks of the horrible to the merely average, I began to enjoy casting, and to understand that one of the satisfactions of fly-fishing was the process itself, the act of artfully laying the fly in front of the fish.
I had hoped for a perch or a pike, or one of the elusive Solovetsky trout. But nothing was biting, or at least nothing was biting what I had to offer. I decided to try the canals. Four hundred lakes on the main Solovetsky island were connected by seventy-eight canals dug long ago by monks. Designed to supply drinking water and provide a network of waterborne transport, the canals--often lined with stones--were still remarkably well preserved. I followed one canal into the woods, hoping to pursue my quest for trout out of sight of the locals. The canal was about two feet deep, the water gin clear, the bottom sandy. Walking along this historic, man-made stream was a pleasure in itself, but fishing these waters was difficult in the extreme. The canals were simply too narrow to offer the angler a sporting chance at tossing out a fly and fooling a fish, assuming there even were fish. Overhanging trees made casting difficult in many spots. And whenever I stopped in the woods, swarms of mosquitoes emerged to harry me. I did find several clearings where I could stand in the open and cast thirty feet upstream, letting my mayfly imitation drift back over the phantom fish. For half an hour, I saw nothing. But then, as I walked near an undercut bank, I caught a glimpse of an eight-inch, spectral shape darting upstream. It looked like a trout.
Spurred by the vainglory of being the first person in recent memory to catch a Solovki canal trout on a fly, I fished with newfound intensity. I switched flies, cast dozens of times, yet nothing rose to devour my insect imitations. Farther on, another small, troutlike form shot upstream as I approached. That was as close as I ever came to this phantasmal creature.
On the ninth of July--my forty-fourth birthday--Yuri Brodsky and I set out at last for Anzer with Stepan Dashkevich. The night before, one of Yuri's friends warned him that Dashkevich was frequently hanging around Brodsky because he was a stooge for the FSB, the successor to the KGB. Brodsky seemed unconcerned.
For two decades, as he compiled material on the Solovetsky gulag, Brodsky had been a thorn in the KGB's side. in the summer of 1973, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the gulag, Brodsky was on the islands. It was not a jubilee that Soviet authorities were celebrating, since the history of Stalin's terror was still largely taboo. Brodsky thought the date needed to be marked, that "someone should speak up about the camps." One night, he clambered atop the monastery's belfry and painted the following words: "50th Anniversary of the Soviet Special Purpose Camp." The KGB swung into action. One of the few outsiders living on the islands that summer, Brodsky was a prime suspect. The secret police were never able to prove he had scrawled the heretical words, but they began watching him closely.
In the beginning, he had no intention of writing a book about the gulag. He merely wanted to document what remained of the camps. But soon he found himself in a race with the local Communist Party and the KGB: as he stole around the island, photographing prisoners' inscriptions on monastery walls or iron bars on cell doors, local officials were busy rubbing out the inscriptions and removing the bars. When he returned home to Electrostal, the KGB repeatedly interrogated him about his growing work on the Solovetsky gulag. He had taken to interviewing former prisoners and witnesses and was beginning to collect documents. The KGB threatened to have him sacked from his job, even hinted he might be jailed. He avoided these dire consequences by being unfailingly polite and always playing the fool.
"In the entire country, memories of the camps were stacked into a kind of brick wall," Brodsky told me. "If one brick was allowed to be pulled out, the other bricks would have come tumbling out much easier. So they hid that wall behind an iron curtain so as not to allow anyone to pull out a single brick."
Now Brodsky was a local hero for his work, and his photographs and archival materials formed the backbone of the moving gulag exhibit in the island's museum of history. The new secret police agency, the FSB, had better things to do with its time, Brodsky reckoned. What interested me more than the possibility that Dashkevich might be spying on us was the lingering paranoia and suspicion that permeated Russian society.
Brodsky, dressed in Jeans and a soiled, tan windbreaker, was smiling broadly as we shoved off from Long Bay on a luminous, seventy-degree day. Motoring along, we chased flocks of sea ducks off the water. A seal surfaced occasionally and watched us pass. Long Bay--a picturesque body of water whose shores were thick with fir, pine, birch, and quaking aspen--gave way to an inlet between the main Solovetsky island and the neighboring island of Bolshaya Muksalma. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of the brick monastery buildings that once housed women gulag prisoners. Among the inmates were about three hundred Ukrainian women who had eaten their children
Excerpted from Reeling in Russia by Fen Montaigne Copyright © 1999 by Fen Montaigne. Excerpted by permission.
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