The old woman stands in white-haired waiting, feathery snow landing on a ragged jacket the color of dry earth. Her only entreaty is the sign of the cross, two fingers and thumb pursed, painting brushstrokes of blessing in the air. She holds a glass jar, ready for change. A ruble? A kopeck?
No ruble, no kopeck. I ignore her because though she is beautiful, she isn’t real. She is only an ornament on this perpetual trek, along with the pastel buildings and the tattered Orthodox church and the statue of Lenin that watches me, hawkish, as I pass. In order to stay sane, I must deny reality.
Because this Russia is not the Russia I knew—the one where I ran through the forest in ecstasy ten years before, the first inkling of all that was more, so much more bubbling, searching, blossoming. At twelve, I hadn’t wanted to serve in that former Soviet youth camp. But I trusted and jumped when untrained, faithful ears heard His whisper. When the whisper widened into song, He reached into my chest, took his finger, and engraved the name of these people deep and bloody into ready tissue —a holy tattoo, irreversible and sure.
I bounded back four times, each one enlarging my joy as the consonantal waltzes of the language danced grooves into my tongue and the friendships multiplied, each laughing adventure and easy silence echoing the original, unexpected song.
I’ve returned again, this time as an English teacher. They’ve placed me in Yelabuga, a small city in the Republic of Tatarstan, the crossroads of Islam and Orthodoxy. The city prides itself in its religious tolerance, its millennium long history, and in being the place the poet Marina Tsvetaeva breathed her last. Yelabuga sings a song too, but it’s a mournful one, an ever-broadening groan. No one notices except the outsiders. The city is beautiful, yes, with its emerald-topped mosque, the log houses with colorful, embellished shutters and the faithful sunset that frames the Orthodox church at dusk. But the beauty only sharpens the darkness, a darkness so heavy it can only be described as spiritual. No religious tolerance or smiling tour guide can disguise that this city is a trickling wound, a city of death. When I arrive, I don’t understand it, but I know it. Jack, a teacher placed in Tatarstan’s capital, knows it too. When he comes to my city, shivering, he tries to describe it. The only words he finds are, “Yelabuga is the realest place on earth.”
But this white-haired woman making the sign of the cross in Lenin Square, the guttural refrain of the muezzin that follows me everywhere, they can’t be real. They must be Dostoevsky—spinning tales of hysterical women and an axe murderer and a holy fool. I always read him to know I’m not alone. Because here, I feel very alone. But Dostoevsky was too—he trekked through the snow, shackled, years of daily death before the fruit emerged and ripened. His gravestone is etched with the words of Christ, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Being a foreigner here is a sort of death. I slip on the American smile and answer questions about my faraway land, a beaming encyclopedia on display. The smile is real, but it is only the outer shell; they cannot see that I am alone, that I didn’t expect this sadness, that their city is a death in my story. Every evening after I teach in the castle with the cupolas, I float, invisible, down the stairs, painted the orange and green of the Tatarstani flag, and drift to my nightly grave, a Soviet era kommunalka, paint peeling, with a blown out light and rusty space heater. I climb into the bed that crunches with the dirt and dregs of the years and close my eyes. Another kernel falling, dying, waiting beneath the suffocating snow.
I wake, but how? The heart beats, the lungs fill. He’s breathed His life into me, another resurrection.
I came because these people were a poem, but now, I imagine my doughy muscles growing taut, propelling me off and away. When I escape, these memories will be but the smoke from a bonfire, a primal fragrance stretching to the sky, diffusing into insignificance. The limber ghost will haunt, but only in whispers.
I came to Yelabuga willingly, but Marina Tsvetaeva didn’t. The poet lived when Stalin purged his faithful followers with random consistency, always cleansing the palate, unbothered that each fake trial and bogus accusation extinguished lives. Her husband and daughter were Stalin’s loyal servants, but the secret police had taken them and her letter to the dictator hadn’t helped. She and her teenage son evacuated Moscow in the August of 1941 and when Marina found herself in Yelabuga, she reacted much as I had; as soon as she settled in a room with a curtain for a door, she wanted out. Because this Russia was not the Russia she knew. To Tsvetaeva, Yelabuga was the end of hope. Less than two weeks after she arrived, she penned a note, found a rope and became a museum.
On my way to the university, I walk past her suicide haunt. It’s comically horrific how proud the Yelabugans seem of her short stay, avoiding the thought that after years of endurance, it was there, in their little town that she’d lost hope. With her short hair, flipped outward, Roman nose and tired eyes, she is now a statue. It seems she always was; the townspeople who remember her in her last days say her face was like stone.
As I walk past, I recite Yesenin’s lines about the blue blizzard that cries like a gypsy violin. In the poem, the thirty-year old is looking on life as something that has long been over. The reader has hope, but he doesn’t. In 1925, three months after writing the poem, Yesenin committed suicide, hanging himself after writing his last lines with the ink of slit wrists. As the stories of death layer, my back threatens to buckle from their weight. But still, I know I am different. I am not like Tsvetaeva; I am not like Yesenin. Even in my hopelessness there is hope, a hope beyond all hope that grasps me fiercely even when I let go.
I escape from Yelabuga for American Thanksgiving, visiting Jack in his city with Molly, Kristen, and Nate, three other teachers scattered around Tatarstan. My laugh builds from the inside out—I am no longer alone. While walking from the metro to Jack’s dorm, we find a doll resting atop the snowy street, curly blonde hair framing an expressionless face. We leave it there, for surely someone will notice it, pick it up and discard it. There is no way she will last through the winter.
Because many things don’t last through the winter in Tatarstan, like the muscular golden mutt that emerges, slowly, through the cakey blanket of snow that I walk atop. The dog’s tawny hairs sprout through the snow like grass. As the snow recedes, it reveals a perfectly formed head, untouched by rot, and finally, in April, the entire mummy. The dead dogs pop up everywhere through the snow, and Molly and I make it a game to see who can find more in our cities.
The white-haired woman on Lenin Square with the serene face, she must have been a little girl when Tsvetaeva ended it. Had she seen Marina’s stone face at the market? She certainly must have heard the whispered rumors when the poet was found dead. What other deaths had she lived through—the five-year plans and the hunger, the fall of the union and the wild nineties? Had her father died in the Great Patriotic War? Had her mother found her a husband whose face soon turned sallow from drink and left her bearing her world and her children alone? What had given her the grace to choose life, to steadily make the sign of the cross when so many before her had chosen death?
When the snow melts in Jack’s city, he laughs when he sees what has surfaced. The doll looks at him with the same blankness of the past November. Somehow, she has emerged whole, not discarded by a passerby or dissolved by the Tatarstani snow, but preserved.
Summer has come, and I stand on a cliff near the Devil’s Tower, the ancient edifice that overlooks the town. The view from the hilltop and the tower’s mysterious lore have drawn me more than once to offer up my heaviness, but in this final pilgrimage, I am happy. As I eye the land I’ll soon depart, soft rain meets my face and I give my gentle goodbye. I want to go home, oh, how I want to go home. But in this moment, fullness of joy is feet planted firmly on this Russian earth, eyes drinking deep of the city before me. I am glad I died here, because for every death I’ve died in Yelabuga, I’ve woken into new life. With each final gasp, I learned to submit as a living sacrifice. And ever faithful, He resurrected me with holy breath, new every morning.
Hope Johnson is a writer in Upstate New York who loves to explore the intersection of classic Russian literature and modern-day faith. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and has been published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature, Red Tent Living, and Just Between Us, among others. She writes at hopeunyielding.com.
Photo credit: “The city of Yelabuga, Tatarstan, Russia.” by The Krasnoyarsk National and Cultural Autonomy of the Chuvash People, Flickr.com (modified by Veronica McDonald).