BY PAVEL CHICHIKOV
January 15-21, 2006 Issue | Posted 1/16/06 at 10:00 AM
This is a very matter-of-fact true story about the supernatural.
Moscow in the year 1991 was a city in which great changes were maturing, and resistance to those changes was assuming malevolent forms. It was a time and place of potentially deadly contradictions.
I was there three times that year as an independent journalist, once using a journalist’s exchange visa under the auspices of Izvestia, the government newspaper (which was also undergoing great changes) and twice by the request of a new ecological organization called the Socio-Ecological Union.
I lived in an apartment near the Taganskaya metro station with a Russian couple. Lyubov Sergeyevna Loseva’s father had been Sergei Losev, director general of the official news agency Tass, and also the head of the Communist Party Control Commission. He had died recently under mysterious circumstances. Lyuba’s husband was Boris Sitnikov, a Tass correspondent.
When I arrived in Moscow after Christmas in December of 1990, I went immediately to St. Louis of the French, the only Catholic church in Moscow at the time, just down the street from KGB headquarters. I walked straight back to the sanctuary and fell on my knees before a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Then I burst into tears.
There were good reasons for me to be afraid of being in Moscow.
There was a sense of impending doom everywhere. An attempted coup (the Russians use the German term putsch) would happen soon. Bullets would fly in downtown Moscow, and people would be killed. A film director friend of mine had been called before a group of old party functionaries because of a film he had made about Stalin, and he had been ferociously denounced. I saw him when he came back from the meeting. He told me: “They’re going to kill me.”
The KGB was still extremely strong on its own turf. There were 28,000 plainclothes KGB operatives in Moscow alone. The secret police controlled the traffic lights and the metro. There was nothing it could not do or was not capable of, except in the end of saving the system itself.
When I left the church two young people in a pew at the back were openly laughing at me. They were obviously “watchers.”
I returned to St. Louis of the French for Mass, though often I would attend the Sunday Mass at the Commercial Office of the U.S. Embassy. I also visited the Orthodox church dedicated to Our Lady of Tikhvin, where I stood with black-shawled old women as they prayed to an icon of God’s mother and her Son.
I left Moscow hurriedly on the first day of the beginning of the first Gulf War, after having interviewed Soviet officers at the Defense Ministry newspaper, Red Star. But I was back again in a few months.
I had made friends with members of the Socio-Ecological Union, especially Sergei Yufit, who was an organic chemist at the USSR’s Academy of Sciences. He had worked with the notorious Soviet Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich on a chemical weapons project but was now heavily engaged in documenting the poisoning of the Russian environment by dioxins and other chlorine-based compounds.
With a group from the Socio-Ecological Union, we traveled by train to Archangel, and then by helicopter to remote villages on the White Sea, where Yufit acquired tissue samples from fish, which have a tendency to concentrate dioxins in their fat and internal organs.
While on this expedition, Yufit sometimes mentioned a document he had worked on for the Soviet authorities. He hinted that it contained important information about the effects of dioxins on public health, but when I asked if I could see the paper, he ignored me, as if he had never heard the request.
Toward the end of that summer, after a social gathering, we were seated in a car in the courtyard of an apartment building. Yufit was in the front seat. It was after sunset, and the courtyard was dark. Suddenly, Yufit turned sideways and passed a thin collection of papers over his shoulder. It was done without a word.
When I returned home I looked at the paper.
It was signed by three Soviet high notables, but the name that stood out was that of Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB. The document was addressed to President Mikhail Gorbachev, and it was a general statement about the effects of organic compounds of chlorine on public health.
It was, really, an admission of grand negligence toward the welfare of the people.
What was I to do with this paper? It occurred to me that I was known at Izvestia, the Soviet daily, so I went there in the morning and found myself sitting across the desk from the foreign affairs editor, a sturdy young man with a redoubtable expression. I showed him the document and explained that I wanted to write an article for Izvestia about it.
Without changing expression he told me to follow him to the office of the deputy editor of the newspaper. There, he received permission to proceed with the article.
It was a Friday afternoon, and he told me to deliver the finished text to him first thing Monday morning.
I was in the lobby of the Izvestia offices on Pushkin Square on Monday morning at a quarter past eight. The foreign desk editor walked in, accompanied by a few other people, and frowned when he saw me. His face was as white as fresh snow. I gave him the article, and he thrust it back into my hands.
“We cannot print such an article,” he said roughly. Then he went on past the uniformed guard at the desk and up the stairs.
It then occurred to me that I was carrying not a newspaper article but something like a typewritten, armed grenade.
When I realized how dangerous the document was, I felt it very likely that I might disappear, or have an “accident.” I even phoned my wife in the States and told her to expect that I might not be on the flight I was supposed to arrive on.
I went down into the Pushkin Square metro station, not seeing anything around me. A Russian friend had told me over the weekend: “Get rid of that document, fast. There’s a big guy who works in the basement of the Lubyanka (KGB headquarters), and he charges 25 rubles a knuckle. You don’t want to meet him.”
The train for Taganskaya arrived. I rode, still unseeing, and I began to pray. It was a very simple, conversational prayer, addressed to the Blessed Virgin. “Lady, get me out of here,” I kept saying, fervently, over and over again.
I reached Taganskaya and began to ascend on one of those endlessly long Muscovite escalators, which begin from the depths of the earth.
As I rode up, still praying, I began to hear the sound of a flute, playing a familiar melody. I rose nearer to the music. It was Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” performed with great devotion and feeling; or at least it seemed so to me.
Just inside the subway entrance was an ordinary looking fellow with a flute. Our eyes met as I passed.
This powerful sign filled me with peace and in the next days I passed amazed through a remarkable series of events, receiving unexpected help in my departure from Russia from people who had lived within the system but not of it, and had grown to oppose it. They had somehow preserved their souls.
As for me, it’s a memory to be rediscovered whenever I find myself sinking into the kind of gray mood in which nothing could be more improbable than an answer from a gracious and merciful infinite. I think of how my year in Moscow began with a petition to the Blessed Virgin for safety and comfort, and how, in effect, it ended at a certain point with that reassurance granted.
I also remember now the time when Yufit, the self-proclaimed atheist and rationalist, went with me to a little Orthodox church just being renovated, near the Lubyanka, and lit a candle. He told me that although an unbeliever, he sometimes lit a candle for a deceased colleague and friend.
Sergei Yufit died last year. He had become well known among the international community which concerns itself with the effects of environmental chemical pollution.
The document in question was published, along with the article I had written, a few months later in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette). My landlord and landlady had suggested that I submit it there. I believe that the article had some small effect on public realization of Soviet environmental irresponsibility. It may have even had some political consequences.
I believe that we often forget that prayers are not dry formulas we mutter to an abstraction, but winged messengers to the transcendent, like doves, perhaps, and that there are beings and persons ready to receive them — and answer.
How likely is it that at that precise moment, in a Moscow that had been atheist for more than 70 years, and Orthodox before that for 800, that a musician would be waiting for me, a desperate petitioner, at the head of a very long escalator, offering a passionate Catholic hymn to God’s Mother?
Pavel Chichikov is a
writer and photographer whose latest book,
Mysteries and Stations, is available on Amazon.com.
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