"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Russian Journals, Part Sixteen, The Lecture and the Lecturer

Top of the eighth, Phillies leading 8 to 2. It’s do or die for the Phillies tonight in game five. I’m in the loft. The TV is on down below in the living room. I hear a roar. I go downstairs to see what’s happening. Pablo Parrot chooses to stay in the loft—he fears going downstairs means being put in his cage.

Commercials come on. I switch to Fox News channel. Greta Van Susteren is interviewing former President George H.W. Bush, who is in Germany to mark the 20th anniversary of the night the obscene Cold War Berlin Wall came down. They are discussing that night.

Now what? History or current events? My finger hesitates over the recall button on the remote. I can always find out the score later.

“You’re a rock star here in Germany,” Greta says to the former president, noting that he modestly refuses to take credit for his part in the world-changing event. She asks him who deserves the most credit.

Again I am faced with a decision. President Bush or the top of the batting order for Yankees, with men on base? Fox News or Fox Network? I stick with history. There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write that deals with this subject.

“Gorbachev, for sure,” he responds and then adds Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor. He speaks briefly of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand, who feared a united, resurgent Germany. The horrors of World War II were fresh in their minds.

Greta goes to commercial. I go to the World Series. The Yanks have scored three runs in the eighth. Score’s now 8 to 5.

I stare into space. Remembering:

The time is twenty minutes to 9 in the morning onboard the MS Nikolay Chernyshevsky. The conference hall on the top deck is packed, standing room only, and little of that. No one wants to miss this lecture, and some people leave reluctantly. It’s hot in the hall, and getting hotter exponentially as tourists pack the glass-walled room. Chairs prop open doors for the cooling breezes to enter as the boat motors smoothly across Lake Onega on a sunny day. People, anxious to hear, stand in the doorways, blocking the air circulation.

A middle-aged Russian women, one of the tour guides for Vantage Deluxe World Travel, enters the hall and makes her way to the front. She wasn’t even supposed to be on this trip, but was hired at the last minute because more people had signed up for the cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg than expected. She begins speaking, though it isn’t yet the appointed hour of nine o’clock.

“I feel I have to entertain you,” she says, and begins with anecdotes, segues smoothly into her prepared material. Her subject today is Modern Russia, a lecture on the leaders of Russia beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and after the slaying of Tsar Nicholas II and his family that effectively eliminated the imperial Romanov (ro-MAH-nov) reign.

Fewer people attended her first lecture several days ago, the one that covered the Imperial Romanov leaders of Russia—the tsars and emperors. She blew us away that day, had us begging for more. Word got around the boat about this magnificent speaker who has lived an extraordinary life, lived in the middle of history, and has the skill to spell-bind an audience. Today, no one wants to miss her talk.

She tells us of the twelve prominent Russian leaders since the revolution, speaks of Stalin, Kruschev, Brezhnev, Yeltsin. She spends most of her time discussing Mikhail Gorbachev, who led Russia for six years from 1985 until the coup of 1991 that ousted him. It is Gorbachev we Westerners know best, Gorbachev with his policies of perestroika (economic restructuring to reduce government control over the economy) and glasnost (political openness, reduced control over media), Gorbachev we thank for reducing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

Perhaps it is Gorbachev she knows best also, though she seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all Russian history. She worked for Gorbachev as his translator for three and a half years. She escorted him to the Berlin Wall when it was being torn down. Her anecdotes about Gorbachev the leader, Gorbachev the person, are mind-boggling. And, obviously, as his translator, she was in the midst of historic conversations, bore the pressure of translating spoken words into a different language and holding those words to the veracity of their intent.

On a certain night in 1991, she was pregnant with her second child. Extremely tired, she had finally gone to bed at 2 a.m. The telephone rang at 4 o’clock. On the line was her husband, who worked for the government. He said only, “Turn on the radio.”

“I said some not very nice words to him,” she confesses. He said, “Turn on the radio.” She protested some more, explaining she was exhausted. Again, he said, “Turn ON the radio.”

She did. News of the collapse of the Soviet Union filled her room. Her husband said he feared he would lose his job. Suddenly she heard a disembodied voice from a loudspeaker in his office: “Stop spreading rumors.”

Her husband laughed, a cynical, fatalistic sound. “What are you going to do? Kill me?” he said.

“If the need arises,” came from the loudspeaker. She did not hear from her husband for several days. He was okay.

Her voice is almost gone. A gentleman offers her a bottle of water. She thanks him, but declines. “It would finish me off, for sure,” she explains. She hastens to conclude.

She speaks of current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a hopeful voice. His economic reforms have been exceptionally valuable for Russia. As for the future, she concludes with a quote, saying Russia will be fine “if we remember that no man is above the law, but that the law is above every man.” (paraphrased)

Her hour and a half is finished, and so is her voice. We would sit for more, much, much more. We are reluctant to leave.

Greta’s interview with former President Bush has concluded. The Yankees score another run in the top of the ninth, but three outs puts an end to their comeback. We’ll go to a game six.

(Professor Irene Nikolashina, the unparalleled history lecturer, teaches art history at the university level. She has written four books, but none are about Russian history. She occasionally lectures in the U.S.)


  1. I'm thrilled that you had the opportunity to hear Professor Irene's lectures on her own experiences with Gorbachev and so much about Russian history. You must have been in your glory and hanging on her every word and uplifted again as you recount it.

    It's cool the way you worked the recount of this aspect of your cruise into your evening at home with with the Phillies' game and Greta's interview competing for your attention.

    (I promise I'll be writing on you-know-what later today...I'm nearing 5000 as of last night).

  2. Yes indeed, it was game 5 of the 2009 World Series. The Phillies held on for an 8 - 6 victory but fell in the 6th game to lose the series 4 games - 2. Smiles. A blast from the Past. Cap and Patti