A Party boss disliked my lampoon and I was driven out of my provincial newspaper. Shortly before that, he called me a wonderful young journalist and praised everything that I published in the leading Russian journals. Now, in my hometown Moscow, I applied for jobs, but hit a wall of unexplained rejections. The Life of The Blind magazine, overlooked by my enemies, hired me as its only correspondent and now, in the fall of 1958, I was going to witness a unique experiment.
Shortly after the war, while the European part of Russia was still in ruins, it was decided to build three exemplary cities for the blind where they would gather from all over the country. The equality of their residents would be determined by the common problems they faced. It sounded like a weird materialization of the Marxist idea which was still smoldering in me: somewhere, away from the Party bosses, people were trying to fulfill mankind’s dream of creating a society of justice, equal opportunity, equal rights, and mutual aid. At least, for the blind.
When a battered bus, rattling over potholes like a giant tambourine, stopped at the edge of the fiery autumn forest, the road dust settled and I saw a sign that read, “Caution: blind pedestrians.” It was nailed directly to a red-headed tree. We drove into Rusinovo.
The city of the blind looked like the only street of a large village, though quite a long one. I glanced in both directions and didn’t see a soul. Across the street stood a gloomy four-story building. Over the black wide gate made out of sheet iron hung a big sign, “The Training and Production Enterprise of the All-Russian Society for the Blind.” The venture was churning out mounting panels for a Moscow plant that two years ago started producing Ruby-brand black-and-white TV sets. The Society was proud of the fact that it participated in the production of such a technological marvel. That plant had some heavily guarded shops, as it did work for the military and space-exploration industry. It was rumored that “our” boards were about to fly off into space. A year earlier, in October 1957, the first Sputnik had been successfully launched into orbit around the Earth.
Next to the factory stood an abandoned kindergarten and two unfinished five-story boxes with gaping windows intended to become homes for the blind, but obviously the money ran out. This gray reality was in stark contrast to the bright roadside fall forest. A stray thought flashed through my mind—well, it’s good that they don’t see it.
The administrators of the plant were waiting for me, but first I went to the nearby high-rises, knocked on a dilapidated door on the first floor, and soon heard shuffling footsteps behind it. A person stopped, listened to my signaling cough, and continued shuffling back and forth behind the door. I said aloud, “I’m a correspondent for The Life of the Blind; please, open.”
In the end, curiosity won out over caution, and the door creaked and opened a crack to the length of the stop chain. I caught an unpleasant odor. An old man, cursing, slammed the door in my face, “You, crook, here again! I remember you! Get out of here, if you don’t want to be shied away with this hammer on your head!” And he hit the fragile door with a heavy object.
I said, “Okay, calm down. I’m not a swindler and will try to talk to your neighbors.”
I was almost on the second floor when he flung open the door and shouted, “If you’re so smart, you had to come with someone whom I knew!”
“You’re right,” I yelled.
“Come back!” he cried. “When my wife returns from the factory! In an hour! She’s half-sighted!”
“Thank you!” I yelled. “Maybe I will!”
On the second floor, without even asking who I was, a toothless pale woman opened the door. Gray strands of hair were sticking out from under her well-worn headscarf. The appearance of a correspondent startled her. “It’s so good of you to come! Please help us to get some medication,” she mumbled.
Two blind sisters had lived in this studio since this house was built ten years ago. The head of the woman slightly quivered, “We’ve been living in this village since childhood. When the authorities decided to build a city of the blind, a lot of blind people already had lived and made a lot of things right here, in Rusinovo.”
The sisters smiled, revealing the remains of yellowed teeth, and the one who opened the door, continued mumbling, “We felt grand that from now on we would have our own city where no one could be hurt. With this apartment, we no longer had to worry about firewood and water. In our basement there is a boiler and we almost never have shortages of coal.”
I began to understand her slurred speech.
“We were so grateful to the Soviet authorities! Only once, coal was delivered late; there was a severe frost, and the water pipes burst. We had to hoof it through the snow for two weeks to our old well half a mile away, near the house where Masha and I grew up.”
The other sister kept smiling.
“Who’s older?” I asked. “You or Masha?”
“I turned fifty last month; she’s two years younger, but she’s as sick as I am.”
Masha kept smiling, “You see, I too lost half of my teeth. Thanks to the plant director, he’s never denied us assistance. If there were no trucks, he’d always give us a horse-drawn cart to ride to Balabanovo’s railway hospital. All our bad teeth were pulled out over there.”
The sisters laughed. They enjoyed my presence.
“Under what?” Masha asked.
“Did they freeze your gums?”
“Why freeze? It was done in summers too, any time of the year.”
“You mean they just pulled it out with tongs, so your eyes nearly popped out from pain?”
“No, no. If a tooth resisted, they pricked the gum and after that the gum went numb.”
“Good,” I said.
The older sister said, “My teeth sometimes move—move and fall out by themselves. It’s because we can’t afford to buy meat and vegetables. Even if we had a garden, we wouldn’t have the strength to cope with it. So in the winter we buy frozen potatoes and slimy cabbage.”
Masha said, “We’ve gotten disability pensions and for months haven’t worked: I because of a stomach ulcer; my sister after a stroke. Sorry, she speaks so slowly; this is the result. Please write that we always were good workers.”
Her sister said, “Often there is no money for medicines. Anyways, the drugs aren’t always available.”
They laughed again.
I was getting frustrated. I didn’t want to see stripped wallpaper, cobwebs, untidy beds, worn clothes, and deformed faces any longer and left that stinking house. The multicolored forest somewhat comforted me, and I walked by a ruined church with no dome to another five-story building. Man is such a beast, I thought spitefully; it gets used to everything and that is why this wretched house looks a bit more inviting.
On the first floor an angry bearded man almost hurt me with a crutch. “Don’t humiliate me!” he shouted. “Go away!”
From a safe distance, after joining forces with his wife, I persuaded him to let me in. On his only foot he had a patched felt boot, out of season. His little son closely watched my every move. I stroked his head. The kid didn’t mind but still was on guard, ready to defend his parents. At first, the man turned his face to the ceiling and listened to my conversation with his wife. After several minutes he began giving approving nods.
“We came here from faraway places,” she said, “in the hope of settling in the dream city. We were very young and fell in love.” She touched his knee and he smiled. My sad smile could see only their six-year-old son.
I asked, “How did you know that you liked each other?”
“By voice,” he began talking.
I said, “Interesting. I also loved the voice of my future wife.”
“Is it true?” she asked.
“For a long time the telephone was our only connection.”
The man said, “We don’t have telephones here.”
“Here our children were born,” she said.
“Tim died,” her husband said.
She patted his knee again, “Stepan is a true hero. He didn’t complain much about his diabetes, about the deep wounds on both legs. They were aching and aching. And smelling. That’s why they cut off his foot.”
The boy climbed up on a chair, stood on tiptoe, and opened a narrow window leaf.
“Forgive me,” the wife went on slowly, “you might not like it, but since then I have kept praying about his leg every day. And he was joking, he said, since here in Russia God had
no means of subsistence, he lived abroad. Please don’t write about that.”
I promised. Now they looked relaxed.
Stepan patted her hand still on his knee, “It wasn’t just her voice. Nastya also hit me.” The youngster giggled while his father smiled. “She hit me hard, with a piece of furniture.”
Here came my turn to laugh loudly, and Stepan continued, “There had been small workshops here and we made furniture before the factory was set up. She got scared, apologized, and hugged me. That was it.”
Nastya said, “That’s how we got better acquainted,” and she and her son burst out laughing like only the young could do.
I said, “It’s good that you didn’t work with bricks.”
We all laughed again. The boy couldn’t stop.
I said, “My wife also hugged me first.”
Stepan continued, “We worked on the presses when she damaged her arm, cleaning the wires. I can’t work, but Nastya still goes there. Maybe I should try to make quilted blankets, like she did in her hometown.”
At that point, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in, Petrovich!” Nastya raised her voice, “We have a guest—the correspondent of the blind magazine.”
In the doorway stood a broad-shouldered man in a faded soldier’s field shirt carelessly tucked into his pants. “Yes, truly an eyeless magazine,” he said. “They just write about how our plans are being over-fulfilled and what songs we sing.”
I mumbled, “Maybe I’ll write about how your friends raise their children.”
“Stop looking at my hand!” He shook his tousled hair. “I was holding a machine gun when a German shot off all my fingers except the thumb. As you see, a dozen fragments landed on my mug too. Oh boy, I was a good-looking youth! Big eyes. The girls couldn’t take their eyes off me.”
“Petrovich is a good man, quiet,” said Nastya. “Only, like today, we’re at times tipsy.”
“Because money jingles in my pocket, especially on the Victory and the October Revolution Days. I put my orders and medals on this tunic and walk begging from car to car on the Moscow-bound train.” He turned his face covered with small scars toward his hostess. “Who brings candies from Moscow for your child every time?”
“You do,” said the little fellow.
“Have you ever been to Moscow?” I asked him.
The boy looked at his mother.
“I want to take him there,” said the soldier. “Just half an hour ride on the bus and less than two hours by train, but she’s afraid that I’ll get drunk in Moscow and Gypsies will steal the boy.”
The mother’s voice faltered. “Have you seen many Muscovites who help the blind to cross the street?”
The soldier said, “The war has made us all cruel.”