Anthony Marra's 'Granddaughters': Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature
In Anthony Marra's story "Granddaughters," more than half a century unfolds in a small town on the Yenisei River in Siberia, beginning at the heyday of a gulag nickel mining operation, through several frosts and thaws to the contemporary oligarch-ruled economy. Galina, granddaughter of a Bolshoi ballet ballerina exiled to the gulag, is willing to try almost anything to reclaim her grandmother's fame and return to Moscow. But Russian history, Marra shows, moves in dramatic spirals, and any attempt to escape its sweeping movement is heavily penalized.
by Anthony Marra
GALINA IVANOVNA'S grandmother was the luminary of the labor camp, while our grandmothers were her audience. Ours were bakers and railway workers and nurses and midwives. They were also spies and counterrevolutionaries and collaborators and traitors. They had been caught using expired ration cards, giving directions to foreigners on the street, and whispering to their spouses in the middle of the night. They were punished. From the stories our mothers told us, we knew that our grandmothers were innocent. They had all thought it was a mistake, a bureaucratic oversight that would soon be corrected. Some held onto this illusion in the crowded cattle cars bearing them east across the Siberian steppe. From the rails they boarded barges and steamed north on the Yenisei. The tundra and sky shared the same shade of gray. Our grandmothers realized that punishment had little to do with crime. In distant cities, their names were censored from Soviet history with the sweep of an official's pen. They were never rehabilitated. They lived until they died, long before we were born. Though we never knew them, we are their only legacy. When they first disembarked from the barges, there was only ice on the ground and nickel in the earth. Barbed-wire fences formed the boundaries of civilization, and here, one hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, they built our home.
But we all knew of Galina Ivanovna's grandparents. For years we gossiped about them. We overheard our mothers tell the stories that they had heard from their mothers. We did not know if the stories were true, but they made Galina different from us. Her grandmother was the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi for three seasons before her arrest. She possessed a figure that demanded to be held aloft under bright lights and admired by a silent audience. Lithesome and delicate, she was beautiful but this did not save her. She was sentenced to ten years of hard labor for anti-Soviet activity. Though she crossed the same rails and rivers as our grandmothers, she was not destined for the mines. The labor camp director was a ballet connoisseur. He had seen Galina's grandmother perform Raymonda in Moscow two years earlier and was one of the first in the theater to rise in ovation. When he saw her name on the manifest, he smiled and poured vodka. He clinked glasses with the assistant camp director and said, "To the might of Soviet art, so great that it reaches even into the Arctic."
For her first year, Galina's grandmother neither worked nor danced. She was given a private room and drank tea with the camp director every afternoon. In the yellow light of his office, they discussed the Vaganova method, the importance of arm plasticity, and the proper femur length of a prima ballerina. They disagreed over the most sublime pas de deux choreographed by Marius Petipa. Galina's grandmother believed the camp director was a philistine for choosing Giselle over Swan Lake, and told him so. He smiled and shook his head, for no one spoke to him in such a manner. But he neither cut her rations nor put nine grams of lead through the back of her head. He simply said, "Perhaps we will reach a consensus tomorrow," and offered her more tea.
The following year, the camp director had an inspired idea. He asked Galina's grandmother to create, train, and lead a small ballet troupe. She accepted the offer and began selecting promising candidates. She stood alongside the guards as they marshaled the new prisoners from the barges. As the guards calculated weight and muscle mass, Galina's grandmother appraised grace and poise. There were many women to choose from, and she was given first pick. Those selected were taken to private quarters and fed three meals a day. The rest were divided based on physical strength, the ability to work in the mines. The women who could lift a twenty-kilogram stone received the best rations. Those too young, too old, or too infirm to lift a five-kilogram stone did not receive rations. The strong would become our grandmothers. The weak would leave nothing in the Arctic but the five kilograms they were unable to lift.
The Seventh Female Gulag Ballet Ensemble rehearsed for six months before making its debut. Some of the women had taken ballet classes as children, before the Revolution. The rest were versed in peasant dances. After several long afternoons of tea and pastries, the camp director and Galina's grandmother decided on an abridged interpretation of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. The ensemble rehearsed tirelessly. Their feet were more blistered than the hands of the mine workers. They learned pirouettes, arabesques, and tendus. Chaînés and piqué turns. Hamstrings stretched and limbs contorted as their bodies were reeducated. Galina's grandmother browbeat elegance into the enemies of the people. After sprained ankles and stretched muscles healed, after bruises from mistimed leaps faded and swollen toes contracted, after the curtain was drawn and a camp searchlight lit the far end of the canteen, it became evident that the stage was set for something extraordinary.
Our grandmothers sat in the audience for the premier. The canteen benches were angled toward the stage, and the programs were printed on the back of secretarial forms. In the stories passed down through our mothers, we see the importance of this night in the lives of our grandmothers. The production itself was absurd. The closest orchestra was in Tomsk, eighteen hundred kilometers away, so the score played through the verdigris-encrusted horn of a gramophone. Petipa's choreography required forty dancers, but Galina's grandmother had trained ten. Women with charcoal-drawn moustaches played the male roles. There were slips and missteps, points at which no two ballerinas danced in time. But when Galina's grandmother was alone onstage, transcendence. She glided in a circle of searchlight. Her hair pulled back, her shoulders as pale as the polar summer. The rise of her leg, the dip of her chest. A sublime moment created and then swept away with the tip of a pointed toe. In the crowd, our grandmothers were silent. Some were transported to past lives, to concert halls and anniversaries and Christmas Eve champagne flutes. Some were bored. But most were astounded. After working a fourteen-hour day in the mines, inhaling so much nickel ore that they sneezed silver mucus, none could have expected a private performance from the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi.
Despite the mishaps, the camp director was thrilled with the performance. For the next eight years, he sponsored ballets on the winter and summer solstices. The repertoire expanded from traditional Russian standards to the masterpieces of the French and Italian stage. The camp director despised the incursion of modern social realism into what he considered a classical art form. He banned all postrevolutionary choreography from his canteen stage. The decision pleased Galina's grandmother, an aesthete of the nineteenth-century ballet. She couldn't help smile as the camp director went over the staging for The Pharaoh's Daughter, for she had more artistic freedom in an Arctic labor camp than she had had in any theater in Moscow.
The ensemble improved with every performance. The dancers went from ragged and malnourished to semiprofessional. They no longer looked like labor camp inmates. The ballets became the most important events of the year. Our grandmothers anticipated the semiannual performances with the same hope and trepidation they felt about their release date. They washed their clothes in clean drinking water and wore perfume ground from the wildflowers that sprouted over the tundra during the ten-week summer. They made sure their fingernails were clean and ironed their shirts against the barracks furnace pipe. They remembered the ballerinas in their prayers. They sat on the canteen benches and watched the dancers onstage and did not think of the nickel in the ground beneath them.
It ended in the ninth year. The truth is known to no one, but in its absence we have come to believe the story our mothers told us. Galina's grandmother had one year until her release date, and the camp director had fallen in love with her. Is it possible for a man who presided over the deaths of so many mothers and sisters and daughters to love a woman? It pains us to admit that it is true. Galina's grandmother was the only woman for thousands of kilometers who did not feel fear and revulsion at the sight of him. The camp director had no wife, no children, nothing but Galina's grandmother and twenty-three thousand square kilometers of ice. Why else would he disband the ensemble in its finest year and send the dancers to work in the mines? He knew that Galina's grandmother was to be released in eleven months, and he did not want to let her go. She was his prima ballerina and he could not bear the thought of her performing on any other stage. He made sure she never would. The mines wore through the ligaments in her left knee, and she had difficulty walking in a straight line. Wrinkles and dark circles appeared where before there had been beauty. Our grandmothers watched, unable to believe that she was no different from them.
Three weeks before her release, the camp director summoned Galina's grandmother to his office. He was moved by what he saw. The prima ballerina had disappeared into an ordinary inmate. He offered tea and pastries. We imagine they were the most painful tea cakes of her life. He asked the guards to leave, and what happened next we know only from rumors of what the guards heard through the closed door. A sharp snap, an open hand connecting with a cheek. The camp director cursed Galina's grandmother. A scuffle, a struggle. A scream and the tear of cloth. As the rest of the camp slept, the camp director became Galina's grandfather.
The years passed. Stalin died and was denounced. The Gulag prisons were decommissioned. Administration of the mines was moved from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Ferrous Metallurgy. The camp became a city, but the same people pulled the nickel from the ground. Our grandmothers remained for various reasons. Some married miners and smelter technicians, and even former camp guards. Some were institutionalized. But the most common reasons for staying were those of practicality and profit. The northern nickel mines paid among the highest wages in the Soviet Union, and its former prisoners had difficulty obtaining residency permits to return home. Galina's grandmother was one of these women. She raised her daughter and taught schoolchildren the tenets of communism. The camp director was demoted and replaced with a party boss. She saw neither him nor a ballet stage until the unseasonably warm May afternoon when she died of tuberculosis in the Herzen Memorial Hospital. The attendant nurse reported her last words: I see, I see, I see. But hers is the story of our grandmothers. Galina Ivanovna, she is ours.
GALINA WAS BORN in the fifth year of Brezhnev's reign, on a day in March when it did not snow. Though the doctor extolled the beauty of every newborn he delivered, he spoke with utter sincerity when he looked at the flushed face of Galina's mother and declared, "This is the most beautiful child I have ever seen." As Galina grew, we all acknowledged the truth of this early appraisal. Galina was indeed a beautiful girl. She had inherited all the elegance of her grandmother.
She was born to a miner and a seamstress for the state textile syndicate. Our mothers approved of the parents in the early years of Galina's childhood. They were unremarkable in all the proper ways. They worked long days and adhered to the second principal of the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism: conscientious labor for the good of society--he who does not work, neither shall he eat. They spoke loudly enough for neighbors to know that they harbored no perverse secrets. But they did not allow Galina to play with us as children. Invitations to birthday and name day celebrations were politely declined. Our mothers were offended. "They are haughty," our mothers whispered as they scooped raspberry preserves into their tea. "They mask their cosmopolitanism in the guise of proletariat purity." This was in 1976, and though the Red Terror had receded into memory, glasnost was still a decade away. Our city was small, and whispers soon became verdicts. Galina's mother was transferred to the Caucasus, with the directive to teach the Chechens how to make better trousers. Later, in Grozny, she would order a glass of Romanian red wine, turn to the television screen in the corner of the bar, and see her daughter for the first time in seventeen years.
We didn't understand why Galina's parents had kept her from us until our third year of primary school. After reciting our multiplication tables--which was no difficult task, for from an early age we had mastered the ability to memorize and recite--we left for lunch. Galina tripped on her untied shoelaces as she passed the teacher's desk. Her books sailed through the air and her lunch tin smashed on the floor. She fell on her rear end and somersaulted backward, her knees slamming against the gleaming linoleum floor. We'd never seen a shoelace cause such a commotion.
"Not quite living up to your grandmother's reputation," the teacher said, glancing up from her copy of The Artamonov Business. We laughed with the smugness of those without reputations to fulfill.
"What do you mean?" Galina asked. She rubbed her hip as she stood, then gathered her books from the floor. From the puzzled expression that crossed her face, we realized that she really did not know what our teacher meant. We told her immediately. She smiled and shook her head, first in disbelief and then pride. We repeated the stories passed down from our mothers, from our mothers' mothers. Galina knew none of them.
At home that evening, she demanded ballet lessons from her father.
"Ballet, but why? No one wants to wear tight shoes," he said. His voice was caked in nickel ore. He would die of lung cancer at the age of fifty-two, exceeding the life expectancy of a miner by three years.
"I want to dance ballet." Her father sighed and set down the model Kiev class aircraft carrier he'd been working on. Over the years, we have often wondered why he and his wife tried to conceal from Galina the family celebrity. The answer is simple, for they were faithful communists with a daughter who looked just like her grandmother. They had undoubtedly heard Lenin's famous reaction to Beethoven's Sonata No. 23: It is wonderful, ethereal music. But I am unable to listen to it. It moves me to stroke the heads of my fellow beings for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. It is necessary to smash in those heads, smash them in without mercy.
"Please?" Galina insisted. Her father furrowed his brow. He was a decent man: he did not drink and on the bus he always offered his seat to women. His wife was relocated to the farthest reaches of the continent, yet he remained faithful. "Please," she implored.
"Of course, Gala." He kissed her on the cheek before returning to his aircraft carrier. She told us all about it the next day.
OVER THE COURSE of Galina's ten years of ballet training, our world changed in ways no one could have imagined. Gorbachev came to office and brought with him glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya. We overheard our mothers whisper about the inhumanities our grandmothers had endured: starvation, solitary confinement, rape. As we passed from early to late adolescence, we found our voices. We too began to whisper and were wise to be wary--the party boss was every bit as cruel as the camp director had been. In the winter, when the sun disappeared entirely for four months, we gathered in teahouses and dance halls. We passed around tattered samizdat pages of Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky and bought black-market Levi's. There was the collection of Queen LPs that someone's second cousin's viola instructor had brought back from a European tour. We read and we listened and we made predictions with all the confidence we could muster from a whisper.
In the summertime, the devastation of the earth was visible in the sky. Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air. Sulfur dioxide rose from the nickel smelters and fell to the third floor of our communal apartment buildings. The rain burned our skin. We made the most of our summers: days without school, nights without darkness. We dated and kissed and lost our virginity. We fell in love and learned heartbreak. We became women. Our mothers spoke softly, and though we understood their apprehension, we did not harbor it. There were days when we took the bus to the city limits and walked out to the softened permafrost. The mud was like mustard and we plodded through it. We looked across the expanse of sulfurous waste that stretched to the horizon and saw what civilization could do to the wilderness in three generations. We shouted. We proclaimed. We did not whisper. For a few short weeks in July, wildflowers pushed through the tundra and all the earth and its works were the color of the sky.
But there was only one color below ground, a metallic silvery luster. Our fathers and uncles worked in the second most productive nickel mine in the world. They blasted the ore from the earth in twelve-hour shifts. Mine shafts dropped two kilometers into the ground, and at the bottom the air was so hot and sticky that even in January the men stripped to their undershirts. Other metals were mined--gold, palladium, copper--but northern nickel was the lifeblood. Smelters ringed the city and their furnaces burned the metal from the ore in two-thousand-degree heat. The falling snow changed color depending on what had been in the furnaces the previous day: red for iron, blue for cobalt, yellow for nickel. In prosperous times, red rashes emerged on exposed skin, and even those who had never lit a cigarette had a smoker's cough. But the mining combine took care of our fathers and uncles: vacations at the local spa resort, citywide festivities on International Workers' Day, and the highest municipal wages of any city in the closest seven time zones. When they got sick, the combine provided medical treatment. When they died, the combine provided orphanages.
Through all this, Galina danced poorly. The ballet instructor's initial excitement at seeing her name on the class list turned to dismay. Despite her lithesome and well-proportioned figure, Galina had no balance. She slipped and fell during basic barre exercises. During performances, she was relegated to the most minor of ensemble roles. "She has her grandmother's beauty but none of her talent," our mothers said. Though we envied her good looks, we took no joy in her failure. We wanted a celebrity of our own.
But in fashion Galina stood apart. On the first day of our last year of secondary school, she wore a miniskirt stitched together from Muslim headdresses. We had never seen anything like it. Patches of teal and green and maroon sewn together with white thread, Arabic calligraphy wrapped around her hips. The gazes of our male classmates clung to the fabric like pieces of lint. The skirt reached her midthigh. Goose bumps covered the rest of her legs.
She sat with us at lunch. Several of the teachers glanced and spoke in low tones. Was it proper to wear such a thing to school? Neither we nor our teachers knew. There was no precedent for miniskirts in the Arctic.
"What is it made of? Where did you get the fabric? How long did it take?" We peppered Galina with questions.
"The headdresses are from my mother," she said. "She sends one from Chechnya every year on my birthday."
We nodded, but no one replied. Galina rarely spoke of her mother and hadn't seen her in more than ten years. Our city was closed--no one could enter or depart it without permission from the highest level of government. The cousin of a classmate worked in the internal passport office and from him we learned that Galina's mother had repeatedly applied for permission to visit, but maternal sentimentality was not adequate justification for visa approval. At dinner that evening, we asked each of our mothers if they could buy Muslim headdresses for us. They just shook their heads and asked, "What are you talking about?" and "Muslims?" and "Are you stupid?"
Though her headdress miniskirt caused intrigue and scandal at our school, it did not prevent Galina from dancing at the fifty-year anniversary of the mining combine. Kremlin officials arrived in a jumbo jet to praise our party boss. There were speeches and commendations. Gorbachev's men told us that we lived at the top of the globe and that the rest of the free world looked up to us from below. Our fathers beamed with pride as the General Secretary himself thanked them in a video recording. You not only mine the fuel of the Soviet Union, he said, you are the fuel of the Soviet Union. The final night of celebrations ended with an outdoor public ballet performance in the city center. Dancers from the Bolshoi and the Kirov flew in to take the leading roles. Against expectations, Galina had been chosen for the backing ensemble. We were afraid for her, but before all those people she shone. She did not stumble. She did not embarrass us. The smelters had been turned off two weeks earlier, and the July sun beamed on Galina Ivanovna.
THEN A WALL fell in another continent, and soon after our Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved. The oligarch replaced the party boss. The value of the ruble plummeted and we bartered with neighbors like peasants. Our city opened, but we remained. These were uncertain times and we looked to our mothers for guidance. They warned us of the dangers of lurking below the Arctic Circle: heroin, HIV, alcoholism, domestic violence, unemployment, and human trafficking. When we received offers from mail-order-bride companies and saw classified ads for au pair work in Western Europe, we shook our heads. The world was falling. It was no time to stray from home.
But Galina did not have a mother pressuring her to stay. She wrote letters to her mother regularly, but neither had enough money saved to afford the twelve-thousand-kilometer journey. Her father had died of lung cancer the previous year, and she still lived in the same apartment, working as a receptionist in the nickel combine's public relations department and taking computer classes in the evenings. She saw the poster for the first annual Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant on a Tuesday afternoon in spring 1994. Though she was running late for her computer class, she paused on the street corner to read the poster. It sought women of youth, beauty, and talent for a nationally televised event. Galina prodded her stomach. She had put on a kilogram or two since secondary school, but she was still young and beautiful.
Auditions were held two weeks later in the auditorium of our old secondary school. We filled the first three rows of seats and walked onstage one at a time. Our makeup was thick and our clothes were tight. The casting director spoke with an effeminate accent and made us think of imperial court dandies. He circled us onstage and tested the firmness of our flesh as if we might spoil before the pageant. He dismissed most of after making a single revolution, but not Galina. She walked onstage wearing her headdress skirt. The casting director's deep inhalation was audible from the first row of seats. He didn't touch her skin. He circled again and again, his fingers grazing the hemline of her skirt. "Remarkable," he said, and we all knew then that Galina would represent our city. "And what is your talent?" "Ballet," she replied. He nodded. "You will have to bring your toe shoes to Novosibirsk."
Soon Galina was everywhere. Her face was plastered on posters and airbrushed on the sides of buildings. Her name appeared in the newspaper for fifty-seven consecutive days. She was not only our representative in Novosibirsk but also one of three contestants chosen to advertise the Miss Siberia competition. The pageant was still months away and though she had still won nothing, she was a household name in our city. She moved from the communal apartment she'd inherited from her father to a large house on the outskirts of town. A black, tinted-window Mercedes picked her up every Friday and drove her to the dacha of the oligarch. "She's done well," our mothers said and, though we'd never seen Galina with him, we agreed. The oligarch was young to be the richest man in Siberia, only thirty-five. When state industries were auctioned off, he had purchased a majority stake in the nickel combine with foreign investment. The auction lasted eight seconds. He paid $330,100,000, just one hundred thousand US dollars over the opening bid. The rest of the stock was distributed among the combine employees. Our fathers and uncles sold their shares at kiosks that dotted Leninsky Prospekt. The combine bought back the shares at only a third of their value, but it was enough to cover the hospital bills. Soon after we heard the rumors of the black Mercedes waiting outside Galina's condominium, posters advertising the Miss Siberia pageant appeared in the windows of all the share-buying kiosks.
Since we were standing in the background of Galina's life, the bright lights fell on us as well. We were her contemporaries, her former classmates and friends. A newly opened salon filed and painted our nails for free, hoping our presence would project an aura of sophistication. Ex-boyfriends called us on the phone with apologies. Our mothers began eavesdropping on our conversations. We relished it. We each wanted to feel exceptional, to feel singled out from the nameless chorus that has lived and died at the brim of the earth.
No one worked on the evening of the beauty pageant. We huddled around television sets across the city and watched as Galina took the stage with thirty other young Siberian women. It was mid-September, and frost caked the windowpanes. Champagne chilled in the refrigerator, vodka chilled on the sill, and we drank and shushed one another as the orchestra began "The Patriot's Song." We hummed along but did not sing. Our country was not yet three years old and the lyrics to the national anthem had not yet been written. The host strode across the stage and welcomed the audience to the first annual Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant. His teeth were straight and far too white for a man of his age and we knew he had spent little time in Siberia. He introduced each contestant. We saw only Galina.
The show cut to a commercial break and when it returned the contestants were in high heels and swimsuits. We wondered if any of them had worn a swimsuit before. We hissed at the other contestants, hoping they would trip or break a heel or spontaneously combust. But they walked across the stage without stumbling and catching fire and though Galina received thunderous applause, so did the contestants from Omsk and Irkutsk and Kemerovo. The judging panel took notes and nodded and clapped softly.
In the interview section, we derided the responses of the other contestants. But when Galina's time came we kept quiet, not even allowing our ice cubes to clink against our glasses. The host introduced her and glanced down to a set of green index cards. "What does the Miss Siberia Beauty Contest mean to you?"
Galina smiled and turned toward the closest camera. "It means a great deal to represent my hometown at a national level. I am pleased that this contest is bringing attention to Siberians. For centuries, Siberia has been the place where European Russia has sent its criminals and exiles. But we are living in a new country now and I think that soon the world will recognize that Siberians not only mine the fuel of the Russian Federation but are the fuel of the Russian Federation."
The host smiled and nodded and flipped to the next index card. "And what will you do if you are chosen as Miss Siberia?"
"I will visit my mother," Galina said. Then a tall girl from Tayga took her place onstage.
The talent portion came last and we were taken aback. The blond-haired contestant from Vladivostok played Rachmaninoff on a baby grand piano. The flat-chested contestant from Barnaul sang an aria from The Magic Flute. Who were these women? The judges appeared as surprised as we were. When it was announced that Galina would dance a solo from The Sleeping Beauty, we fell silent. What was she trying to prove by selecting the solo from the first ballet her grandmother had performed on the canteen stage sixty years earlier? Flashbulbs flickered off her skin. She stood in the fourth position, her left hand resting above the white tulle of the tutu, her right hand raised over her head. We tried to imagine what was going through her head as the spotlight tightened to a single circle surrounding her. She stared out at the audience with a forced smile. Did she invoke the grandmother she had never met, asking for her guidance through the intricacies of the routine? Did she pause to consider the focal point she had become for those few moments? In the auditorium she commanded the attention of the country's new cosmopolitan elite: the fashion designers, the television producers, the ad men and model agency directors. In the communal apartments and Stalinist high-rises, the bars and nursing homes and barracks of our provinces, she commanded the attention of an audience that had only a passive participation in its own history: the schoolgirls in Tomsk, Birobidzhan, and Kemerovo whose parents let them stay up past bedtime, the oil rig workers off the coast of Sakhalin huddling together as saltwater sprayed across the decks, the wives in Ural nuclear towns who spent their lives within view of missile silos, the mother in Grozny with a glass of Romanian red wine in her hand, and us, the few who knew in the flesh the pixilated face on the television screen.
The strings began and Galina lifted her left leg. She traced a parabola in the air with the pointe of her slipper. She was wearing a three-quarters-length romantic tutu and it rose and fell with the arc of her leg. Her foot reached the ground just as the timpani came in and oh, how we wished our grandmothers had been alive to witness this. For two and a half minutes she danced, and all the city was silent. Though we were seventeen hundred kilometers away from the auditorium, we had never felt closer to Galina. The attendees from Moscow, Petersburg, and Volgograd only saw Galina, but we saw her in her first ballet auditions when the instructor shook her head with disappointment. We saw her disbelief when we told her of her grandmother. We saw her fly through the air when she tripped on her shoelace in third-year arithmetic. But a shoelace could not be blamed for the fall Galina took in the final fifteen seconds of her routine. It could only be attributed to the series of overly ambitious grand jetés, the polished stage floor, and poor training. She leaped from the ball of her right foot but landed on the side of her left. The microphones did not pick up the fracture of her medial malleolus. We only heard the host's exclamation and a short scream from Galina as she slid to the floor. When she pushed herself upright, her face was red. Her tutu spread around her on the stage, filling every centimeter of spotlight. The cameras caught her expression from five different angles. There was no mistaking her shame.
Galina received medical attention while the rest of the contestants demonstrated their talents. A duet with a parakeet. A tightrope act. A comedy routine. Galina was pushed onstage in a wheelchair for the crowning ceremony. Her ankle was packed in ice. There was no chance she would win but still we watched. Her failure was our own. The host received an envelope from the judging panel and opened it onstage. A brief look of confusion passed over his face as he read and reread the name. Though we would later learn that the oligarch had been one of the chief financiers of the contest, that the winner's name had been written on a sheet of cream-colored stationary and sealed in the envelope three days before the contestants reached Novosibirsk, it would not adulterate the joy we felt when the host smiled to the camera and said, "It gives me great pleasure to announce that the Miss Siberia crown goes to none other than Galina Ivanovna." We clapped and shouted wildly. We stomped on the floorboards and danced in the hallways. Galina's face sparkled with photoflashes. The host placed a gold tiara on her head. Years later, the gold leaf would begin to chip and Galina would realize her crown was made of alloyed nickel.
TENSIONS MOUNTED in the months preceding the First Chechen War, and it became clear that Galina would be unable to fulfill her promise to find her mother. But fame came quickly. Galina received roles in films and television shows. For a number of years we only saw her on cinema screens and low-grade tabloid papers. She lived in Moscow, on the Arbat, in the penthouse of a five-star hotel owned by the oligarch. Even in their most scintillating speculations, the tabloids never mentioned him. The oligarch was one of the few pillars in our foundering economy and newspapers have long respected the privacy of the powerful.
Meanwhile, our fathers and uncles died of lung disease and our brothers and husbands replaced them. They came home from work angry and frustrated. Most had only just begun working in the combine, yet they feared layoffs. The benefits the combine once provided its employees were gone. No spas or medical insurance, but the orphanages remained. It stung when we realized that our mothers had been right. Security was more valuable than freedom. The rubles received for the nickel combine shares were spent and we could no longer claim ownership of the mines our grandparents had built. We began second-guessing ourselves and turned to the radio for guidance. We listened to the Voice of Moscow, a nationalist talk show that five years earlier we had derided our mothers for listening to. They had been right in fearing change and we were naive for expecting the best. For years, our country was powerful. The entire world feared us. We were provided for by a stern and paternal state. Now what did we have? Epidemics and addictions. When we were teenagers, we believed that our lives were pitted against the strength of the state. Now we understood that this very strength allowed us to live here, at the edge of the earth.
Yet we found joy. We had children. They came into the world screaming and tangled in umbilical cords. They came pale and slick with placenta. They came coughing and sputtering and we received them in our arms and we taught them to laugh. We had boys and we had girls. We loved our daughters more. We knew that whatever suffering the looming century would inflict on our children, our sons would suffer less.
We clapped at first birthdays and first steps. We snapped photographs on the first day of school. Our children forever changed our relationships with our mothers. We felt pity and compassion and love and understanding for them in a way we never had before. Quite simply, we had never realized how difficult it is to raise a child. We began calling our mothers more frequently and inviting them to dinner every Sunday. In the presence of our children, we referred to them as grandmothers.
When Galina's first film came out in the theaters, we went with our children and their grandmothers. Lines stretched around the block. Even the matinee show was sold out for weeks. Her face was even more beautiful when stretched two stories tall. She played the heroine trapped in a web of mystery and intrigue. She was held hostage and escaped. She used her mental and physical agility to her advantage. Critics lambasted the film as implausible and fanciful, but we disagreed. We could think of nothing less plausible than one of our classmates starring in a feature film, yet this had come to pass.
WE DID NOT LEARN the details of Galina's visit to Chechnya until years later, when she was again one of us. In autumn 1996, soon after the ceasefire, she accompanied an early diplomatic mission to Grozny. She was unaware that she was six weeks pregnant when she boarded the plane in Moscow. It must have been a ridiculous sight: aid workers, government negotiators, military personnel, and Miss Siberia. She vomited in the lavatory but did not realize that motion sickness was really morning sickness. The Ilyushin IL-86 passenger plane was among the first aircraft without the capacity to drop bombs to fly through Chechen airspace in years. From kilometers in the air, Chechnya appeared like any landmass. Individual acts of war were lost in the undulating topography. But then the plane descended and the capital came into view. Galina did not blink until the wheels hit the tarmac.
She stayed in the nurses' quarters of an army field hospital on the outskirts of town. The nurses had clipped nails and wore their hair pulled back. They worked fourteen-hour shifts and did not make small talk. When she arrived, a colonel informed Galina that it would take time to arrange an armed escort. She followed the nurses to the field hospital the next morning. Antiseptics hung in the air, a chemical curtain that burned her sinuses. The room was long and narrow and lined with cots. The wounded lay bandaged and covered in white sheets. Galina could not breathe. She had never imagined that the human body could be disfigured in so many different ways.
She closed her eyes and pressed against the unpainted cinderblock wall. She remembered the bomb drills we had practiced once a month in primary school. The teacher would announce that a bomb was coming from America and we would hide under our desks, close our eyes, and press our palms against our ears. We understood the power of bombs. Three weeks before Galina's shoelace had sent her sailing, our schoolteacher played us footage of the Tsar Bomba. "It is a fifty-megaton warhead," she explained as she slid the videocassette from its case. "It is the largest, most powerful bomb ever created by man, and it is ours." We grinned and looked at each other and Galina was just as excited as the rest of us. We had never seen a VCR before. Our schoolteacher turned on the Ekran set and spent several minutes fiddling with the cables before asking if any of us had experience with electronics. A short boy sitting two seats from Galina ran to the front of the room. We cheered when the screen went blue. A cinematic score played through the tin speakers as a pilot waved at the camera from the cockpit. Thunderous timpani, an irate string section. Crowds cheered from the runway as the Tu-95V took flight. A date came across the bottom of the screen in white letters: October 30, 1961. Stalin's private terror had ended and a public one was born. Our grandparents had feared midnight abductions, but we did not fear losing individual family members. We feared losing everyone. The airplane climbed over Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic island located thirteen hundred kilometers due east of us. The warhead descended tied to a white parachute. It fell at a diagonal. In the wide shot, it was invisible against the clouded sky. Then, at four kilometers above the ground, detonation. The explosion seemed to sear the pixels from the screen. The clouds were replaced by flashes of light. Great circles of smoke expanded. We watched silently. We could not have imagined greater destruction.
"Roadside bombs and land mines mainly," a broad-cheeked nurse told Galina. "And gunfire."
"You haven't seen anything like this before, have you?"
Galina shook her head. The nurse took two latex gloves from a cardboard box. "I wouldn't think so," she said. The latex snapped against her wrist as she pulled on the gloves. "It's harder to get in here than the Kremlin. No journalists, no cameras, no foreigners. Only medical and military personnel. You must know someone important?"
And in that moment did Galina think of the oligarch? Of his blue eyes and Italian suits, his weekly pedicures and kitchen staff of chefs from Paraguay, France, Japan, and Montreal?
"Yes," she said. "I suppose I do."
"While you're here, you may as well be useful." With a sweep of her hand, the nurse gestured to the injured. "Talk with them. Some may have seen your films."
Galina spent the afternoon speaking with soldiers from Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Chelyabinsk. Many had seen her films, but few recognized her. She asked them about their lives before the war. They told her stories of siblings and parents and friends. They asked her about her life and she told them about us. When she was finished, she went back to the nurses' quarters. She slipped beneath the white starched sheet. The cot creaked against her weight. She fell asleep before the sun had set.
The armed escort was ready the next morning. A lieutenant in a blue-gray uniform met her by an armored jeep. He handed her a helmet and flak jacket without greeting her. "Do they fit?" he asked. Galina nodded. They drove through a series of checkpoints and into the city. The snow was gray with ash. They passed a building without walls. Six floors of exposed bedrooms, kitchens, and lavatories. Snow filled sink basins. "We may have some difficulty finding the address you provided." The lieutenant spoke loudly, though the streets were silent but for the hum of the engine. The jeep drove over fallen shingles and swerved to avoid rafter beams. Galina knew she would never see her mother again.
The lieutenant pulled over at an intersection. He cut the motor and helped Galina from the jeep. She looked down the block. The buildings could hardly be called such; they were no longer built. There was no scent of sewage, no raw waste in the street. There was no one. She walked over broken masonry. Glass shards drove into the rubber soles of her boots. More cinders than snow. She climbed a mound of rubble to a collapsed apartment building. The floors lay stacked, one upon the next. She reached out and touched the steel knob of a broken bureau drawer. The wood was soft with moisture and the screws gave way as she pulled the knob. It was round and firm and unbroken in her palm. She placed it in her coat pocket and returned to the jeep.
She fainted that evening in the nurses' quarters. When she woke, the broad-cheeked nurse was pressing an ice pack to her forehead. "You are a foolish woman," the nurse said. "Coming to a war zone in your condition."
WE DIDN'T SEE GALINA for several years. After she gave birth to a girl weighing 3.4 kilograms, she vanished from public life. The films she had starred in went from the theaters to satellite television, then vanished from the airwaves altogether. We stopped talking about her. We had our own lives to worry about.
The layoffs began soon after the first Chechen war ended. Automated machines from China mined the earth with greater efficiency than our husbands. Pensions vanished in the fluctuations of foreign stock exchanges. Even those who kept their jobs struggled. At five thousand rubles to a dollar, no one could afford the imported products that replaced our familiar Soviet brands in the grocery store. We considered moving south but could not afford relocation. Besides, our children were the fourth generation to call the Arctic home. This meant something, even if we couldn't say what.
When the KGB man was made prime minister in 1999, we rejoiced. He was strong and our country needed the guidance of a strong leader. Our children began using new history textbooks in school and we helped them with their homework. They read about Peter the Great, whose city on the Neva cost the lives of one hundred thousand serfs. The whole world can agree that St. Petersburg is a beautiful and magnificent city. They read about the czars, the reach of imperial power, the discontent of workers and the October Revolution. They read about Stalin and we read along with them, surprised that the new edition of the textbook offered a more generous perspective of him than our own did. According to the text, Stalin was an effective manager who acted entirely rationally and the most successful Soviet leader ever.Arctic labor camps were a vital part of his drive to make the country great. We thought of our grandmothers. Perhaps their sacrifices were as necessary as they were tragic. After all, what are individual lives worth when weighed against the future of the state? If it weren't for their sacrifices, what lives would we have and where would we call home? When our children read aloud that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century we nodded and told them, "Yes, this is true."
In autumn that year, Chechen separatists bombed apartment buildings in Moscow and the prime minister retaliated by bombing their entire country. On October 5, when our army crossed the Terek River and a shell destroyed a bus carrying refugees to the border, we heard Galina again. She was a phone-in guest on the Voice of Moscow and, from the breathlessness of her first words, we knew she had not thought through her course of action. What could have prompted her? Why was she ungrateful to the government that had given her so much? She had no right. She had everything. Later we learned that the radio station was the subsidiary of a media holding company, which in turn was the subsidiary of a joint stock bank whose primary shareholder was none other than the richest man in Siberia, our oligarch. Had she known this when she called the prime minister a barbarian who had the same disregard for human life and dignity and freedom as every other tyrant who over the course of the long history of our land has destroyed the lives of innocent people again and again? It is unlikely. After all, as the richest man in Siberia, the oligarch owned a third of practically everything.
There was no scandal; her downfall was completed within days. In the coming weeks, her films would be pulled from video rental shelves across the country. Her name was quietly expunged from the official records of the Miss Siberia Beauty Contest and the first runner-up was recorded as the winner. In photographs of the 1937 Bolshoi Ballet Company, Galina's grandmother had been airbrushed out of existence. And just like her grandmother, Galina was erased from her own history. We couldn't blame the oligarch. A man in his position of power could not afford to offend the prime minister. Galina lost the condo, the car, the fur coats. Anything for which she did not possess a title, deed, or receipt was taken away. The oligarch granted Galina one concession. He would provide for their daughter's schooling in Moscow. Galina returned to the Arctic alone.
ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON, a decade later, we were watching our children play in the public park beside the old House of Culture when Galina passed. We saw her all the time now. Not on billboards or cinema screens, but in the supermarket and at the bus stop. Her face had become same size as all of ours, no longer two stories tall. Her daughter, now ten years old, walked along beside her. The city was again closed to all outsiders, but the oligarch was a powerful man. The daughter spent the school year in Moscow but returned to spend summers with her mother. She was a beautiful girl, there was no denying it.
She broke from Galina's hand and ran across the tarmac to the jungle gym. We smiled and our breaths were invisible in the warm air. We were happy. The rising price of oil and natural gas had stabilized the ruble. The mining combine profits grew in correlation to the Chinese economy and our town was as prosperous as it had been in the Soviet years. From time to time we heard stories similar to Galina's. Those who spoke out against the prime minister soon had their assets frozen. But their lives were small sacrifices for our security.
Galina crossed the sidewalk and sat with us on the park bench. We watched our children play together on the jungle gym, swinging on monkey bars, shouting and laughing down the slide. In ten years, they would be married and having children of their own. What stories would our granddaughters tell of us, and would their stories sound like ours?
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