And Comrade Stalin has made us kindhearted, I thought bitterly, but said, “The war ended fourteen years ago.”

“No,” Petrovich said firmly. “We’re still at war. I listen to the radio every day.”

The woman said, “Petrovich knows everything about politics.”

Petrovich turned to her, “How can we not to speak about this damned war? America and Germany are about to attack us. The border is long and we have enemies from all sides. That’s why all of our money is spent on defense.”

The host put his arm around his wife. “But not on the blind. That’s why your military pension is so small.”

He sounded ironic.

“Stalin made a big mistake, that he didn’t take the whole of Germany,” said Petrovich, completing his review of the international situation.

When I was departing, the kid asked, “Why did you come to us?”

“I wanted to get acquainted with your parents; they are true heroes.”

“I know,” he said.

“And they love you very much.”

“I know,” he said.

“Learn well.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m learning how to read. I will read books for them.”

Climbing to the next floor, I started panicking. I was in a leper colony. There was nothing I could write about them.

I kept climbing the smelly stairs, up and up, and realized it only when I was already on the top, on the fifth floor. I leaned my damp forehead against a wall of indeterminate color and spoke to myself. “It’s easier to break this wall with this head than to find a way out of this impasse. If we glorify the dying soldiers, why couldn’t I sing of the disabled’s daily fight for the right to stay alive? This fight blows up the human flesh just like the war.”

A cheerful fellow of my age opened the door. “I’ve heard you talking with someone about the war. Looking for some war veteran?”

“What a relief!” I said. “Probably I was looking for you.”

His unseeing eyes were focused directly at me. He was healthy and recently married, and his heavily pregnant wife was at the factory and threatened him to deliver the baby right on the shop floor.
“We have a good nurse, a former midwife. When my wife rushes to her downstairs, she always says, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you.’”

“Did you choose your wife for her voice?” I asked brazenly.

“I touched her.”

“And you couldn’t stop touching anymore?”

“Uh-huh. I touched her … breast.”

“And she?”

“She said that I wasn’t shy.”

“And you?”

“I said, ‘If I weren’t bashful, my hand wouldn’t have moved from your body as quickly as if it hit a burner.’”

“And she?”
“She laughed.”

“And you?”

“I said, ‘My fingers are still burning ….’” He furrowed his brow, “Are you going to write about this?”

I blurted out, “I’d love to, but a prudish censor would ban it.”

“Do we have censors?” asked the guy.

“Yes. They guard our state secrets. Our enemies shouldn’t know that Russian women have breasts. What do you do for fun?”

“Sing in a choir. Together. I hope it’s not a state secret.”

“Let’s ask a censor.”

Two true men enjoyed each other’s company.

“Why are so many blind people ill?” was my last question.

“From poverty,” was his lightning-fast response.

On the way home, I muttered angrily under my breath. “A city of the blind in the country of the eyeless. No guide dogs. They are busy guarding our borders.”

About three months later, on my way to the huge Siberian city of Novosibirsk, I felt lucky.

This time my job seemed easier and even entertaining—to cover preparations for a nationwide show of blind amateurs. I kept looking from my sleeper at the forests and only on the third day realized why I was so pleased that the trees had already dropped their leaves. The lush fall in the drab ‘city of the blind’ was still on my mind.

Rusinovo was quickly forgotten when I stepped on the railroad platform of Novosibirsk. I left my felt valenki boots at home and my toes quickly informed me why the city was called the capital of Siberia. The unusually cold November welcomed me with a negative-forty-degree frost. My leather boots with warm lining, a gift of my parents for work in the fields and forests of Kostroma, served me faithfully for two years of my extensive travels. But even backed by woolen socks, they weren’t able to withstand the murderous Siberian frost.

Someone had to meet me on the platform, but the damn someone was late, and to save my life, I began to run inside an unheated station building and within a couple of minutes would jump back to the platform. A girl in a downy shawl which covered her eyebrows and the mouth, came up to me from behind and said, “Forgive me for being late, comrade Polishchuk!”

I asked, “How did you manage to recognize me from the back?”

She said, “By your luxurious tall boots. You’re the only person in this town with no valenki.”

Life at the club was in full swing. The city was a home to a relatively large community of the blind; it even had an amateur theater. Everyone was convinced that the Moscow correspondent would glorify creative Novosibirsk across the country and my assessment would affect the selection of participants for the nationwide show of blind amateurs. All were eager to hear my opinion. I was determined to hide it. After a play rehearsal, one girl whispered, “It’s high time for this old cow to stop playing Juliet, and to play her grandmother instead.” As in any theater, in the struggle for better roles all means were acceptable—from intrigue to attempts to make a drunkard out of the unstable artistic director.

It was late, the whimsical frosty patterns were no longer visible on the blackened windows, the cold was gathering force, and all but the tipsy head of the troupe hurried home.

“Want to see the seventh wonder of the world?” came a voice behind me, hoarse from the cold air.

I turned around. A man in his forties and a boy, both in sheepskin coats, stood next to me.

The kid looked not so much at me as at my shiny boots. On his father’s right shoulder hung an instrument in a wide black case which could be an accordion or its close relative, the Russian bayan. The empty left sleeve of his coat was tucked in his pocket.

“Sure,” I said, and glanced with concern at the director sitting next to me, already dozing off.

“Quick, my boy! Prepare the stage!” ordered the father.

They dropped their gloves, coats, and caps with earflaps on a bench behind us and headed to the stage. The man was wearing an untucked Russian shirt of ancient style with a collar fastening at the side. It was red, with embroidery on the edge of the flap, and belted with a narrow Circassian strap. I shouted, “Wow!” and the musician waved to me and yelled, “My wife sewed it from a flag!”

I expressed my amazement again.

The boy helped his dad climb the stairs to the stage and walked him behind the curtain. A minute later the son appeared again, apparently in anticipation of a command from his father.

Finally a loud order “Open up!” was given, and the curtain began to move slowly apart. First I heard a heavy rhythmic stamping of felt boots, which meant dance. By that time the director’s chin had firmly come to rest on his chest. Then a merry raucous singing started which soon was joined by the heartbreaking sounds of a bayan. After the audience was electrified, the curtain fully opened and I saw the glorious performer. At first glance, his instrument looked like a hybrid of a large manual harmonica and a push-button accordion popular in Russian countryside. However, the left keyboard wasn’t there, instead, there was just a smooth surface. All the vertical rows of bass buttons had been moved to the right side of the instrument; both keyboards were somehow lumped together. The musician used his left stump only to stretch the bayan as wide as the bellows would allow, even a bit wider. In response it roared like a wounded Siberian bear. He sang, better to say, shouted, two folk songs and not very funny limericks. By the time he went from raucous baritone to effeminate squealing, the artistic director was already sleeping serenely.

It was all the same to me how well or poorly this strong-willed man played and sang. It was amazing! After coming down from the stage, he said, “The secret of the bayan is that the listeners cannot weep. You can only have fun, dance, and sing bawdy ditties with it.”

I said, “You’re a unique individual,” and asked why he was so modest as to call himself only the seventh wonder of the world, not, at least, the third one. His upper eyelids dropped and he said, “From modesty. People don’t know, but there is also an eighth wonder of the
world.”

I asked, “Who? Comrade Stalin?”

He said, “No. In Vologda.”

I said, “I was in that city and didn’t find anything special.”

“There, there,” he said firmly. “There is another war veteran over there, a one-armed bayan virtuoso. Like me.”

The man certainly didn’t know a thing about the seven remarkable structures of classical antiquity.

We were leaving the club treading carefully on the plank floor, so as not to wake the snoring artistic director. The musician said, “Good music will never wake a drunken man, but steps, even cautious ones, can.”

On the threshold, his kid said, “Dad, we need the same general’s boots as this uncle has. They can stomp louder.”

In my report, I didn’t mention the wonders of the world but wrote about the kids of the blind who grew up caring for their parents.

Within one year, I extensively traveled and my reports appeared in every issue of the magazine. My last assignment brought me to Chelyabinsk, the city on the border of Europe and Asia. On the warm July day of my arrival, the Chelyabinsk Hotel’s manageress in a lacy blouse confided to me some state secrets. Two of them have been known to the whole country since the war. The natives called their city Tankograd, the City of Tanks; it also could be called the Katyusha Town, after the truck-mounted rocket launchers.

The third secret still wasn’t known to the one million of its residents. The chatty manageress solemnly warned that I would have to go once a classified message comes from Moscow about the upcoming arrival of a foreign dignitary. I was the lucky last traveler allowed to stay in this freshly painted hotel, surrounded by a still smelly circle of brand-new asphalt. The four stories above us had been already sealed and guarded for several days.

I said, “It’s probably Richard Nixon with a huge entourage. They say he offended Khrushchev on July 24, at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow.”

She was impressed by my knowledge of state secrets.

“Did he called Nikita Sergeyevich some bad names?” she asked.

I reassured her that our leader knew far more bad words than the completely divorced-from-the masses US vice president.

“Why did Nikita Sergeyevich go to such a foolish exhibition? America is capable of employing any provocation,” she said.

“To protect world peace,” I said. “The whole of Moscow was trying to get there. People stood in line for hours to have a look at it all. Indeed, this had never happened before.”

Impressed by the stunning news of Nixon’s upcoming arrival, she wanted to show me the luxury accommodations with new Finnish furniture “brought from Moscow” and said to a guard in a black suit, “Let the Moscow correspondent have a look at the beautiful paintings in this corridor.”

He looked at me keenly. “No one should go near the pictures.”

The smart-ass needed my favorite shtick, and I used it. “One doesn’t need to look at these local paintings to know what’s depicted there.”

“What?” he screwed one eye.

To prolong the suspense, I said, “The foreign bastards couldn’t swipe them from their rooms, even if they wanted to.”

When a nervous expectation lit up in his eyes, I said, “Khrushchev’s portrait; happy steelmakers around an open-hearth furnace; beautiful collective farmers in long skirts and sturdy high boots, maybe with red carnations in their hair; Chelyabinsk’s famous tractors with red flags; a military parade in Red Square, and your Ural Mountains in different seasons, all painted with photographic precision.”

The manageress was impressed again.

“It’s not entirely accurate,” said the guardian of art, and he wouldn’t let us in the hallway.

She said, “Don’t worry, we don’t have bad paintings here. All of them were selected by the Regional Party Committee.”

In the morning she knocked on my door and whispered, “He isn’t coming.”

I asked, “Could I move upstairs? Fresh asphalt smells a bit.”

“No. It will take some time to remove from all four floors the new furniture, crystal vases, carpets, silver, and all that.”

“And the paintings?”

“Yes, how d’you know? You’re so sharp. They ordered me not to touch them.”

“The KGB art collectors will do this sophisticated job themselves.”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, I got to run,” I said. “Could we have a rendezvous tonight at your restaurant?”

“What a romantic French word!”

“Which one?” I asked.

She smiled, “I’ll tell you in the evening why we shouldn’t have invited this warmonger, what’s his name, Nixon.”

The workshop on the edge of the town looked from afar like a long stable inappropriately set amid village houses. On the way from the bus stop, the half-blind chairman of the regional branch of the All-Russian Society for the Blind was carefully checking with his hefty stick the downhill cobblestone road that has long yearned for repair.

“This shed is probably much older than me,” he said to maintain a conversation.

I endorsed his point of view, “The first rope was produced by monkeys. It was called liana.”

“We’ve made the right choice,” observed my companion.

I corrected my faux pas. “It’ll be necessary for centuries to come.”

The door and small windows of the low structure were wide open. On a bench near the door two blind workers smoked cigarettes rolled from newspaper. I hadn’t seen such do-it-yourself cigarettes since my war childhood. Large dust particles stuck to their hair, shoulders, and unshaven faces.

I stepped inside and saw the particles of dried hemp dancing in the air. A gray string of slouching workers was slowly walking inside this translucent shroud—from one end of the barn to the other and back again. They held onto a faint rope along which they moved and looked like convicts in a chain gang. Soon the top of my throat began tickling and my eyes started to get used to the particles wavering in the air; they were produced every time at the end of the barn where the workers curled a new thread on the future rope.

I walked through the blurred veil to the end of the shed and saw the plant fiber passing through a primitive breaker resembling a wooden comb. This ancient device was removing dirt and making myriad particles fly. They were sticking out of the nostrils, ears, sockets of the blinking blind eyes, and from lips.

I was in the fifteenth century and so overwhelmed that I couldn’t understand how these straight, long, and loose strands were twisting and braiding together to form a rope. These gloomy workers descended from the paintings of Brueghel the Elder right into socialist Russia. My eyes began hurting. Through the gleefully dancing dust I looked at the reels placed on a rotating wooden disk twisting individual fiber strands. Yarns, spun from these strands, were twisting in directions opposite to each other. There was a blatant contradiction between the slow monotonous movement of the blind and the rapid irrepressible twitching of all that surrounded them—the twists of the yarns and the counter-twists of the strands and the twists of the ropes stretched along the length of the barn.

I didn’t want to be there anymore and didn’t talk to anyone. Why should I remain in this hell if nobody would allow me to write about it?

“Well, did you like it?” asked my guide on the way back to the bus stop.

“Not really. It’s a health hazard.”

He stopped. “Do you realize that these people are happy that we have provided them with secure jobs?”

“I do,” I said. “I just don’t know what to write.”

He said, “I understand.”

In the evening I met with the hotel manager again. She grew up near Moscow and she missed cultured people. I impressed her with my manners. Maybe here, at the restaurant, she just wanted to talk about something intelligent and sublime, because her redneck husband didn’t understand this woman’s follies.

Soon I learned that he, a military man, told her to stay in Chelyabinsk while he would be involved in cleaning up large areas of nuclear contamination. Never before had I heard that the people of Chelyabinsk Region had suffered two nuclear disasters, the last one just two years ago. She was unable to grasp the reasons for allowing Nixon to visit the city when people were dying from nuclear radiation in its hospitals.

“We came here in 1951, after radioactive waste from plutonium production had been dumped for six years into the river, the only source of water for dozens of villages. He worked in a closed city called Beria ….”

I interrupted, “Beria? The KGB head shot after Stalin’s death in 1953?”

“Yes. He refused to say how far it was from here.”

“Do you understand the meaning of it?”

“Yes.”

I said, “The entire military-nuclear industry here was built on the bones of prisoners.”

“Yes.”

I burst out, “What a perversion! Stalin rewarded Beria with glory, even when the very existence of these cities was a top secret.”

Who would have guessed that my journey from the fifteenth to the twentieth century could be so short!

“A couple of years ago a great misfortune happened again, and …” she squeezed my hand on the table, “my husband got nauseated and completely lost interest in me. Even before, he rarely smiled, and now he has stopped smiling. Completely,” she sighed. “They sent him to some military hospital, he said, and he wasn’t allowed to give me the address. Do you think he lied? During the last two months I haven’t heard from him.”

I said, “If something really bad happened, you would be informed.”

She said, “We have no children.”

Only when the waiter brought our food did she remove her moist hand from mine.

I asked. “Who were all those criminals?”

She didn’t understand my question.

I explained, “Those who built all these nuclear sites.”

She shrugged, “I don’t know. Criminals.”

This was my last assignment. After one year of work in The Life of the Blind, I was admitted to the Communist Party; my influential friend from Pravda said gleefully, “Now, with this red pass to the bright future in your pocket, we’ll move you, forgotten by your enemies, from the blind to the blinded.”

I said, “By the way, my magazine will soon be renamed into Our Life.”

“A wise decision,” he said. “Now the life of the blind will markedly improve.”

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