As a political dissident, Berdzenishvili lands in jail, serving a sentence on trumped-up charges of activism and agitation. But rather than being the hell he expected, jail allows him access to a wide array of intellectuals, professionals, citizens of all walks of life, many of whom, he freely admits, he would not have had the chance to meet if he had not been in jail.
Here he bears witness to those lives. Each chapter carries a single person’s name and focuses on a single story. Collectively, however, these portraits create a multifaceted and vast picture of life in the Soviet Union, including during its demise. A nation seeks to suppress its brightest citizens, to keep them locked away in the dark. But in that darkness, unbeknown to the jailor, bonds stronger than walls were forming.
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Sibley Memorial Hospital
There were LCD monitors, thick cords, clamp stands, support arms, and a control panel surrounded by people dressed in white, blue, and maroon. And there was light, light everywhere, the light of a hundred thousand lumens.
"Sacred light ... as if I were on a spaceship," I thought, then lost consciousness. I felt like I was being swiftly carried away, and that made me happy. Everything was light and speed. I was in motion for a long time and then, suddenly, I stopped. As I slowly regained awareness of my body, I heard two women talking. The light went off. Motion was light, and stillness was darkness. Complete blackness descended on me. It was total, absolute blackness — a "sacred darkness." Two women were talking in that darkness. They spoke softly in worried tones. They were discussing something, but I couldn't understand what it was. That annoyed me: Why couldn't I understand what they were saying? "In sacred light," Hegel said, "in the great abyss of sacred light ..." I could hear women's voices, but I couldn't understand them. "In sacred radiance, in the great abyss of sacred radiance ... So little is known, just as in sacred darkness ..."
Finally, something emerged from the sounds, something I could make sense of. That something was a word. "In the beginning was the Word ..." and that word was insurance.
"That's not an empty sound," I thought. "I even know what it means." But why don't I understand anything else? Because it's not a Georgian word — it's in a different language. It's the English word for medical coverage. Those women were speaking in English. But why were they speaking in English? Where was I? I obviously wasn't on a spaceship, but in a more earthly place. A hospital where they speak English. I was here because I'd suddenly gotten sick — it started on the plane. When we were flying over the ocean, I began shivering. Then, in the Mexican embassy, I passed out, but not before calling the Georgian embassy. What was I doing in the Mexican embassy? Oh, I remember now: I'm in Washington. From here, I was supposed to fly to Cancun, Mexico, and then, somewhere else. I ended up at Irena's house on Connecticut Avenue. Irena Lasota is a friend. "You're very sick," she told me, and she made a convincing argument to prove her point: "You haven't even touched my duck!" Those were the last words I remembered. I didn't even try her heavenly duck, and that was clear proof of my illness.
"We're worried because he doesn't have insurance. Our hospital's not Johns Hopkins, but you couldn't say it's cheap either."
"I was right, this is a hospital," I thought.
The unknown woman's voice continued:
"How will he manage to cover such a huge bill?"
"My dear doctor, this is no ordinary man. He's a member of parliament and a former political prisoner who spent time in the Soviet Gulag. Where he's from, everybody knows who he is and thousands of people would be happy to help him. Don't think there's no one to take care of him!" said my friend Irena — I would have recognized her voice and her French-accented English anywhere.
"Strange, in all of America, there's probably not even a hundred doctors who know what the Gulag is, and among them, there's probably no more than a dozen who'd be interested in anything connected with the Gulag. But you managed to run into one of them. My mother was a prisoner in the Gulag, and I was born there."
"Where were you born? What prison was your mother in?" Irena asked, excited.
"In Potma, in the Dubravny prison camp," the woman answered.
"I'll pay for everything," I wanted to say, but couldn't.
"This can't be just a coincidence. This man was in the Dubravny camp too, in Barashevo."
"If my mother were alive ..."
"All three of us were imprisoned there," Irena said. "In the whole D.C. area, we're probably the only three people who were in the Gulag, and now, all of us are here, in Sibley Hospital."
"Not for long," I wanted to add, but couldn't.
"I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Irena. Irena Lasota."
"Ms. Lasota, what's your relationship to the patient?"
"He's an old friend. He arrived this morning from Georgia."
"I'll try talking to him. Hello," said the unknown woman in a white coat.
"Hello, Doctor," I tried to answer, but couldn't.
"It's possible that he can hear us, but can't answer. What's his name?"
"Levan Berdzenishvili. B as in Boris, E as in Elena, R as in Ronald ..."
"That's a very difficult last name!"
"You can just call him Mr. B."
"Very well, then. Mr. B. it is. I'm his attending physician, and my name is Paige, Paige Van Wirt."
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Van Wirt."
"Ms. Lasota, Mr. B. is facing two serious problems. There's a skin infection on his left leg, and his kidney function is impaired. The infection has already spread, so we'll have to use very powerful antibiotics to treat it.
Unfortunately, this treatment might further damage his kidneys. I want you to know that the risk is significant. For the first three days, he'll have to stay in the intensive care unit. First, we need to manage the infection and then we'll deal with his kidneys. Does all of that make sense?"
"He has an infection, and it's possible that his kidneys will fail due to the antibiotics. We need to be prepare for the worst, Ms. Paige."
"Just Paige or, if you insist, it's Ms. Van Wirt," the doctor corrected her in a sad voice.
"Okay, Ms. Van Wirt."
"I know he has travel insurance, which is not going to help him here, but, regardless of his financial situation, we'll take care of him for now."
"Thank you very much."
"You said he's an ex-prisoner of the Gulag. Is that true?"
"Yes, it is."
"Okay, then. Whenever I'm on call, I'll ask him about his time there. Talking will be good for him and I don't sleep much at night anyway. In return for those stories, I'll do a good deed for him: I won't charge him for my services. This will save him several thousand dollars. Do you think Mr. B. will agree?"
"How could he not!" Irena exclaimed. "If only he'd come to right now! He's a real talker."
"Great," said Ms. Van Wirt. "We'll start in three days."
"If you can hear me," the doctor said to me, "please concentrate and listen very carefully: We gave you an IV with very strong medication, which is why you can't talk. For the next three days, you'll be on the brink between life and death. This will be your war, and you'll have to win it. They might call to you and try to take you away. Don't let them! When that time comes, you have to make an effort — remember, you can't leave now because you have debts to pay. Think of how much you owe. If you can't think of anything else, think of what you owe me — you have to tell me everything about the Dubravny prison camp and Potma because I was born there. We'll leave you alone now. Relax and get some sleep."
"Debt," I thought, "that's the right word. I can't go anywhere until I've paid off my debts. That's true. That's how it is. I have a debt, a very big debt. And my debt even has a name — Arkady Dudkin."
* * *
As with any book, my book had its own special fate — it was born by mistake.
According to the elegy by the Ancient Greek poet Solon, a human life consists of seven-year periods: in the first seven years, a child loses his teeth; in the second seven years, he reaches puberty; in the third, a man grows a beard; in the fourth, he blossoms; in the fifth, he starts a family; in the sixth, he commits to his life's work; in the seventh and eighth, he is perfected; in the ninth, he begins to grow weaker; and in the tenth — his death could not be described as premature.
I've lived through many things, but when I really think about it, I'm convinced that the most important seven years of my life were the four I spent waiting to be arrested and the following three years I spent in prison. The influence of those seven years on my life is so great that as soon as I meet someone new — whether that person is a Georgian or a foreigner — after the first few words are exchanged, I begin to explain that I used to be a political prisoner. All conversations inevitably turn to that topic, without fail.
Deep down, I try to resist the temptation to talk about it. I don't like to be described in such a reductive way. I try to convince myself that it's not such a good idea to bring up the KGB, the Gulag, prison and misfortune while talking about ancient Greece, Homer, Aristophanes, Rustaveli, Baratashvili, Galaction, soccer, Pelé, Garrincha, Ronaldo, computers, Windows, Macs, iPhones, diets, protein, Atkins, carbs, the private sector, funds, education, history, politics, Ilia Chavchavadze's murder, the Georgian people, traveling and Brazil ... Talk about whatever you want — especially, if you're a good talker — but how can Barashevo, the Dubravny prison camp, and an incarceration that happened thirty years ago help along your conversation?
That's why I could never bring myself to write anything about the establishment of the Georgian Republican party, the investigation, the wait to be imprisoned, and the arrest itself, which happened on Vedzini Street in Tbilisi; nor could I write about the KGB detention center, which was located just a hundred steps away from my house and where I spent six months; nor about the Rostov, Ryazan, and Potma prisons or about the Stolypin prisoner transport or about Barashevo, where I spent the best three years of my life. When I say "the best years," I mean that in two ways: they were the best years of my life because at that time I was young — and what can be more beautiful than youth — but also because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.
I'd never written anything about Barashevo even though I'd told friends stories about the region's water, climate, environment, the prison routine and the particulars of prison life, and, most importantly, the people — my fellow-prisoners and our vigilant guards.
My friends used to tell me, "You really ought to write down the story of your time in prison!" And I understood that I had to do it, but it never seemed like the right time. But when, in a far-off country, in Sibley Memorial Hospital, a concerned doctor concluded that my days were numbered, and her verdict was clearly reflected on the faces of my loved ones, I finally realized that, despite my one-hundred-and-four-degree temperature, "the time" had come.
I know I'm not the first person to be compelled to write by extraordinary circumstances — there's no shortage of hacks and geniuses in that category. But I set pen to paper (or rather, glued myself to a keyboard) not to write a great work of literature or to search for "lost time" (Ah, Proust!) but to rescue a character who was about to disappear. I was fighting to rescue Arkady Dudkin. If it weren't for me, Arkady would be lost, and no one would ever know that he'd existed and that his life had meaning. Some forgot about him a long time ago, and others didn't forget because there was nothing to remember — they'd never seen him in the prison camp. If I didn't describe Arkady, he'd find me in Hades and demand an answer, the same way Tiresias appeared to Odysseus. If Arkady is lost, then I will be too, and someone might mistakenly think that he knew me just because he'd attended one of my lectures, saw me on TV, or read an article of mine in a newspaper.
I'm not capable of writing like Flaubert, but if that great writer could say "I am Madame Bovary!" then I can say: I am Arkady Dudkin.
A short while later, the doctor admitted that her worst fears were unfounded, and so my departure to Hades was postponed for an indefinite amount of time. But it was already too late: The character Arkady Dudkin had been transformed into a text created in Arial Unicode OpenType font and now he was wandering across the World Wide Web beyond my control.
In the forty-first psalm, David says: "Abyss summons abyss," and in the same way Arkady Dudkin summons Grisha (Gregory) Feldman, Grisha — Zhora Khomizuri, Zhora — Johnny Lashkarashvili, Johnny — Rafik Papayan, Rafik — Henrikh Altunyan, Henrikh — Misha Polyakov, Misha — Borya Manilovich, Borya — Vadim Yankov, Vadim — Fred Anadenko, Fred — Yuri Badzyo, Badzyo — Alexey Razlatsky, Razlatsky — Pyotr Butov, and Butov — Deinis Lismanis. All together there are fourteen of them, and all fourteen summon my brother Dato. Then my memory was illuminated in such a way that the light became darkness, the darkness settled in, and that persistent darkness began to speak.CHAPTER 2
He led two lives or, rather, he resided in an institution (after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, this word should no longer be used — it is so Soviet, proclaiming the superiority of the State over the individual), the ZhKh 385/3-5 prison, where he didn't have any life at all, though he didn't know it. He knew that he was Arkady Dudkin, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, a hero of that war, and a man who, along with Kantaria, had raised a red flag above a church (of course, he meant the Reichstag, which he'd seen in the movies, but it seemed in his imagination that only churches could have domes) and that Gorokhov (a name he'd given to Kantaria's comrade Mikhail Yegorov, the other legendary flag-bearer) was never there at all. Arkady also knew he'd be released on May 13, but he either stopped counting the years or just existed in that one final yet eternal year in which he would be liberated. But some bad people, or villains as he called them, wouldn't let him out.
Arkady Dudkin "knew" many interesting things. For example, he knew that Leonid Brezhnev, who he called Lyonya and with whom he'd shared a prison cell in Vladimir, stole the military medals and awards he'd earned with his own sweat and blood. He knew he'd been catapulted from a tank ("They catapulted me," he liked to say), and he knew other things that followed the same trajectory, a naïve and unpolished myth — a legend in criminal slang — that he'd begun telling on the day he was arrested and had never changed. Namely, that he'd fought in the war, earned medals and awards, and raised a flag where and how he was supposed to raise it. After that, he was arrested for no reason at all.
It seemed that in creating his legend, Arkady had been greatly aided by the life of his older brother, Vasily Dudkin, who did fight in the Great Patriotic War, who truly was a war hero, and, if he didn't raise the flag above the Reichstag along with Kantaria and Yegorov, did actually take part in its seizure.
Yes, Arkady knew he was a hero, but his knowledge didn't align well with the prison administration's data, and, honestly, the rest of the camp didn't believe it either. His fellow-inmates acknowledged only one thing — that during the war, Arkady was a German policeman. When the Germans arrived at his village in Belarus, Arkady was fifteen years old. He didn't run away, or more likely couldn't run away, into the woods to join the heroic partisan resistance. However, at seventeen, the Germans put Arkady, who wasn't really up to speed on reading or writing and was generally a bit "out of it," in a police uniform and gave him a machine gun, ordering him to restore order in the village. Arkady walked toward the woods and fired several rounds to try out his new weapon. (In the prosecution's closing statement, this was presented as "firing in the direction of the partisans.") Two days later, the partisans liberated the village and Arkady's time in the police force came to an end. The partisans didn't even think of punishing the mentally challenged boy. Trying on a German uniform, however, ended up costing Arkady dearly. (That was the only crime listed in the prosecution's closing statement, which wasn't a surprise as there were only five families in the village and none of them were Jewish or communist, so it was unclear what kind of order Policeman Dudkin could have restored during that forty-eight-hour period.) His mind, which was already weak and had a child's understanding of the world, was adversely affected by the whole episode. He began presenting himself as if he were his brother; he started making up war stories, and in each story, he had a starring role. That's how he simultaneously broke through the Leningrad blockade, fought in the battle of Stalingrad as well as on the Kursk Bulge, and, of course, captured Berlin.
The village felt sorry for him. Everyone remembered his laughable two-day police service and knew he wouldn't hurt a flea, not to mention a human being, and so the villagers played along. Out of pity, they kept him as the village fool, and (along with an old church) he was the only local attraction.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sacred Darkness"
Copyright © 2013 Levan Berdzenishvili.
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