"How Someone Ended Up in Berlin" (from In the Kingdom of Shadows)
I will speak about "someone": names are annoying. "Someone" did not run away from Soviet Russia; "someone" had urgent, vital matters abroad. "Someone" got out of Russia with difficulty. "Someone" did not have a German visa ready; he was going to get it in Riga. "Someone" heard about the rich, contented life in happy Latvia. "Someone" ended up in Riga, and he was not at all happy there: in the air was the rotten grayness of October slush, and the water reflected a leaden fog. The residents were obnoxious ripping off objects from a suspected Russian, recognizing immediately from his appearance (a worn-out cap and a strange-looking coat) a carrier of the "Bolshevik" poison. The sad motif from "The Life of Man" by Satz distinctly sounded to "someone" in the atmosphere of the capital of the great Latvian state. And "someone in gray" met "someone" in a boring and common paper published by Russian émigrés. The proud Latvian citizens, distinguishing themselves by the fullness and weight of their stomachs and noses, on this very day of "someone's" stay in Riga repeatedly happily showed to "someone" in a condescending manner that everything that "someone" sees and hears is rich and magnificent. But it seemed to "someone" that everything that was surrounding him was poor and weak. It became difficult to be surrounded by such a lack of taste so typical of upstarts. Instead of great pride this lack of taste was everywhere apparent before the eyes of "someone." The poorly dressed men in peaked caps were talking to each other in Russian, glancing around with eyes of casual upstarts, cutting through poverty with self-conceited looks resembling frogs trying to be compared with oxen. "Someone" thought that day: where is the intelligent Russian demeanor to which he was accustomed? Compared to Riga, there seems to be a kind of "riff-raft" roaming the disrepaired boulevards of Moscow and Leningrad, but this "riff-raff' has lively eyes, the sharp, tenacious look of ideological aspirations. "Someone" became accustomed to the fact that passers-by have eyes. This is why the absence of eyes of the respectable petty bourgeois crossing the respectable streets of the great Latvian capital disturbed him: "Where are the eyes?" Instead of eyes only holes without inspiration. The absence of eyes among the cultured Latvian passers-by frightened him. Yes, the eyes have disappeared, but instead of eyes there appeared both above and under them black bowler hats and respectable overcoats which framed the eyeless, and exposed the focus of the clothes. In Leningrad and in Moscow one noticed the faces but the Latvian citizens had no faces; their personalities had vanished into their clothes. Here "someone" became sad and remembered it was not that long ago as he took part at a crowded gathering where the "riff-raff' filled a huge auditorium; where you could hear refined discussions about the Scythians and The Twelve by Blok. He remembered how the "riff-raff" accompanied him with penetrating, heartfelt words. He remembered how a young man he did not know, dressed in the same "riff-raft" as the others, told him: "Listen, 'someone': when you remain abroad alone, when you become sad and terrified, then remember that we love you, that we will remember you; and life will probably become easier." So "someone" on the grand day of his settling in the well-to-do, respectable, dressed Latvian capital, was reminiscing about heartwarming "riff-raft" with distinct melancholy. It is true that this "riff-raff' did not possess Latvian boots but replaced them by wonderful, intelligent eyes subject to Latvian censorship. And for some reason it reminded him of a small town, Karachev, where "someone" spent the entire June and July of 1919. Typhoid fever was everywhere; dust was flying in the streets. Under the feet large quantities of glass fragments were glistening. Denikin's6 army was drawing near and the whole South was being evacuated. Evacuated institutions were being swiftly transported through Karachev. Meanwhile, life went on in full swing: posters, gatherings, meetings (of both Communists and anarchists) were taking place; groups were hastily organized, and a wonderful library was being erected. In the Muzo section of the Narkompros they were teaching Eurythmics to playful, conscientious youth; and under the sounds of Chopin and Schumann a culture of movement was being developed. "Someone" remembered that during this summer a disbelief grew within him: was he really in the provinces? Is it not true that in the provinces the province disappears? But here, in the Latvian capital, among clean, beautiful, quiet buildings, a settled eyeless population, was provincial boredom. The thought that here "someone" will reside with nothing to do was killing him. His soul was telling him: "and you will be bored to death in this Riga! "And in Riga they did not like Soviet Russia then; and in Riga they did not like Germany then; but everything that was appearing before "someone's" eyes, everything was yesterday's Russia, yesterday's Germany, with hastily painted "ochre" of Latvian greatness; 'so, "someone" saw hastily painted railway cars taken from Soviet Russia; and unpainted German picks (he became familiar with the real Latvia, the Latvia of artists, not in Riga but in Berlin!) The entire first day of the happy arrival in happy abroad was tainted for "someone" by an acute yearning for Soviet Russia. And "someone" suddenly understood himself so well that he totally, subconsciously, started to whistle the contemporary Russian song:
And, as one, we will die In a struggle for this!
And suddenly he stopped himself: for this matter, for whistling, you will get into trouble! Now "someone" started to think about pleasant relaxation, and having returned into a cold hole which was called a separate room, he dreamt about peace. He asked to have his room made warm; he just wanted to stretch his tired legs on the sofa, but suddenly there was a knock... "What is it?" "You are asked to go to the commandant's office." "What for?" "They will tell you there." It can't be helped! The commandant's office was not too far. The impressive looking officer was magnificently fluent in Russian, carefully looked at my papers, and while lowering his angry eyes' at the red colored cover of the Soviet passport, he said: "You do not have the right to spend the night in Riga: you have only a transit visa; you have only two hours to depart by train." And "someone," having returned to the hotel, started to get ready for his departure. The hotel owner repeatedly kept knocking reminding that time was expiring and that it was time to leave. The policeman posted at the entrance of the hotel was already waiting, and "someone," having grabbed his suitcases and swearing loudly, started to leave. He was followed by a look of contempt by the eyeless maitre d'hotel and by genuine sympathy of the porter, who was dragging out his suitcases. The clerk said: "And this is called a democratic country!" Leaving the hotel, "someone" saw a truly magnificent sight: armed to the teeth, the imposing Latvian policeman guarded the threshold, the threshold behind which "someone" tried to stay. "Someone" told him angrily: "So this is how they welcome Russian writers in Riga?" And imagine: this most majestic being did not shoot "someone" with his majestic look, but modestly lowered his eyes at his lacquered boots, shyly hanging his nose above them, speaking eloquently: "It is not I, but they!" And suddenly it became clear: "They" are the eyeless citizens of Riga; the somber thoughts of "someone" about the clean bowler hats which replaced their faces were the real reasons for "someone's" deportation out of Riga. And "someone," with his head held high, left for the train station, sat in the compartment, and was carried quickly out of the city limits of the great Latvian capital to Lithuania where he at once changed from "someone" into a respected "nektas:" all Lithuanians end on "as" or "is:" Ivanovas, Petrovas, Semenovas: "someone" became "nektas," he was troubled by his own dative case, which turned him into "nektui." Ivanui Ivanovichui Ivanovui admit, this is rather difficult! So he wrote down his "-ui" on the request to be able to stay in the famous city Kovno until he receives permission to enter Germany: this "-ui" was accompanying him during his days in Kovno. The Lithuanians were treating him in a friendly fashion; he was not followed by any majestic policemen: but during the first days something unpleasant did happen. One could not even call it a room, it was impossible to even find a corner where one could lie down! The first night "someone" spent in a dirty dining room of some tavern where they prepared for him something resembling a bed next to other poor souls like himself. Think about it, the Lithuanians were explaining to him, the whole town of Kovno is designed to take a maximum of thirty-five thousand and now we have at least 200 thousand living here... From the very first day of "someone's" stay in Kovno acquaintances appeared before him: Muscovites, Petersburgers,-- one, ten, twenty; and so on... They all came to Kovno! They all became "opportunists." One could say that from the moment that the Lithuanian state was established, a large part of Russian nationals (born in Moscow, Leningrad) became Lithuanian subjects. In Lithuania "someone" suddenly found out that Kant was Lithuanian, and that a state prize is ready to be awarded to anyone who will prove Kant's Lithuanian origins with little help of tangible evidence. They even started to suggest that perhaps even the great Copernicus was not at all Polish but Lithuanian (as was the case with Mickiewicz); they also tried to explain that Chopin was not Chopin but Chopinas (a Lithuanian), as Ivan Ivanovich, a Petersburg inhabitant, who became in Kovno a Lithuanian: think about it,-- Ivanas Ivanovichas! It was not possible to say this about the great Pushkin (his African ancestry had forever separated him from Lithuania) and so even Pushkin Street in Kovno disappeared from the face of the earth. In the renowned capital theater (an old wooden structure for about two hundred), a patch could be seen on the curtain. (They probably cut out a picture of some Russian dramatist, of course, in time before the nationals from the kingdom of shadows have submitted their applications for Lithuanian citizenship). That patch was tormenting "someone's" conscience during the performance of Hedda Gabler which was done in an old Lithuanian dialect and taking Henrik Ibsen's work into the depths of Sanskrit phonetics (as you know, Sanskrit is alive until this day in Lithuanian dialect). And exactly the same patches, or better, covers, were represented by Lithuanian figures with whom "nektas" became acquainted; he met a Lithuanian, some "-as, " or "-is," this was only a cover; underneath the "-as" Ivanov, Petrov, Soloviev from Moscow, Leningrad, Saratov, were hiding. And thus living in Kovno became for "nektas—nekto" a practical seminar in the study of Ovid' s Metamorphoses. "Nektas" was invited to an evening of Lithuanian writers organized by the patrons of Lithuanian art, headed by the writers and poets Kirsha and Giro (here you have born Lithuanians who by the force of fate possessed names without the distinct Lithuanian ending). During the evening they were addressing "nektas" with a welcoming word which "nektas" did not understand, unacquainted with the secrets of the language. Listening to this word "nektas" was thinking: "To hell with it,--who can prove if the word was in fact used to welcome him, this word can be just another cover." But never mind, one cannot demand knowledge of Russian from Lithuanians. What was his surprise when after a lavish first course and plenty of drink the Lithuanian cover was blown away and they all started to switch to Russian, familiar faces were revealed and they started to sing Russian songs. One of them was just yesterday a student in Leningrad, another a Mosdow student who used to attend "nektas' " lectures. The Lithuanian artists were the cultural intelligentsia: one was a representative of the populist movement, another one was leaning toward Dadaism and Expressionism, translating the most recent German poetry into Lithuanian. "Nektas" is especially reminded of Binkis, a poet and thinker, who was able to survive in a skillful way in the present times and to recognize the enormity of the epoch as a crisis of all life. One was reminded of the esteemed Tumas who opposed the government's policies from the left. They proposed to "nektas" to stay in Lithuania and to work out a series of studies on poetics following the plan of literary studies of the Moscow Proletkult; but "nektas" was planning to go to Berlin. Nevertheless, he spent a difficult month in Kovno. The Germans have established an entry point here for thousands of Jews and Russians who were for weeks, months, half a year, waiting for a favorable sign for admission to Germany. The German consulate was dealing with "nektas" courteously. Since his literary name was known to the Germans, they spoke Russian with him, and they even invited him for a cup of tea. The representatives of the German government even went to his public lectures in Kovno, they came to the podium and complimented him, but they did not let him out. The application for transit visa to Germany was hanging in foggy air. Permission came from the Police Directorate in Berlin, but to no avail because they explained at the consulate that yet another visa from the Foreign Office was necessary. When this visa also came, again difficulties arose. These difficulties were growing like mushrooms not in Berlin, but here, in these small, pleasant rooms of the consulate in Kovno, where such orderly, clean, intelligent, young people had conversations with "nektas" about Dostoevsky, Rilke, Count Keyserling, instead of having boring conversations about the visa. So "nektas" was walking away from the pleasant place with his head down into the light-gray darkness of Kovno whose stones were sprinkled with light rain. No matter which direction you take, you end up on the very same Leisswitz Boulevard (or the Boulevard of Freedom). Everyone was coming to this boulevard, the whole Kovno is Leisswitz Boulevard. You take a turn to the right, you are in a suburb; you go to the left, and again, a suburb; you keep going, and in three minutes you end up among deserted, fall hills, where there is no Kovno, where jackdaws are flying and the great spaces are howling. Yes, there is only one street in Kovno, Leisswitz Boulevard, and Perkovsky's Polish Café dominates over the boulevard. It has a shape of a corridor and is therefore called with bitter irony "the corridor," -- that Polish dim corridor through which many have gone and through which all the ones gathered there still had to pass. Perkovsky's is a place for those who are dreaming about Germany for weeks, months; it is a cleansing place where their souls are washed of the sins committed during their lives in Soviet Russia; until you get to this place, you are the most dangerous Bolshevik. After you pass through this corridor, you become distinctly whiter. The "Polish corridor" is a passage into another life, into European life, and rumors were abounding among us waiting for passage to Germany. In the "Polish corridor" the Poles are sending you back; in the "Polish corridor" the railway cars are sealed. "Nektas' " consciousness was thus darkened in the "Polish corridor." At Perkovsky's more and more acquaintances of "nektas" were sitting at his table. How many outpourings and complaints about Kovno he listened to from those waiting for passage to Germany? How many did "nektas" later meet in Berlin on Kurfurstendanun, on Tauentzin, and Motzstrasse? "Hello...Do you remember?" "Do you recognize me: we met in Kovno, in Perkovsky's Café...." And a picture of despondent brooding about the unknown at Perkovsky's appeared. And they always added: "It was a sad time." Yes, "nektas" was going through a sad time in Kovno and in Germany. Germany was disappearing in the fog of the unknown, or into the ink-well of the German consul in Kovno; but from this ink-well was supposed to have come the stroke of the pen on the paper, opening the door to Germany. And so the pull to go back to Soviet Russia was already felt at the threshold to Europe. And one became exasperated when after just showing "the red passport" to the consular official, you could already notice that his nose went into an apparent convulsion, as if the nose were holding in an irrepressibly tickling cold, as if from the passport a draft were blowing at the nose, creating the cold; that the Poles were terribly afraid of that draft or "the easterly wind" in their "corridor." And this is why they sealed the Lithuanian railway cars. And therefore "nektas" decided earlier that he was going to choose another route to Berlin: through Konigsberg, Swinemunde, Sczeczin. Before his departure for Germany he visited the National Lithuanian Museum, or the little room of only few square meters with its strikingly bare walls and absence of furniture. In one corner of this room he saw, as he remembers, a couple of Lithuanian crosses and some embroideries, and in the other corner saw a heap of paintings by Churlanis. "Nektas" thought that old national Lithuanian treasures were more frequently displayed in the apartments of nobility in Moscow, St. Petersburg, with the traditional crossed swords, shields and spiked helmets, which were missing in the national museum of the Lithuanian capital. As the people who were accompanying "nektas" were showing him these treasures, they said that one day everything will be hanging and standing here in this building. And "nektas" thought: "Shouldn't we during these two-three free minutes hang up all the treasures and thus draw nearer for these people a highly solemn moment of a national holiday of opening the great Lithuanian Museum of Culture?" But for some reason "nektas" did not speak his thoughts. Shortly thereafter he left Lithuania. By now he had lost hope to leave it for Germany (he was planning to go back to Soviet Russia) when they flatly told him at the consulate that both his visas were invalid until some respected citizen of Kovno guarantees that "nektas" will return to Lithuania in exactly two months. Since he was not intending to do this, he sadly lowered his head and left the consulate; but the consulate notified him through unofficial channels that he needed to make another claim. A graceful game of blind-man's-bluff took place when he came to the German consulate, to receive his visa where they all knew that "nektas" will stay in Berlin for a long time. Nevertheless "nektas" was asked by an official with a strict appearance who had concealed his personality:--"So you are returning in two months to Kovno?" And "nektas," looking deeply into the official's eyes, answered: "I will return soon to Kovno." And from that moment an almost two-year game started at the consulate: a game of hide and seek. The official from Kovno shouted: "And where is `nektas'?" "Nektas" was answering the official from Kovno from Victoria-Luisen Street in Berlin: "Oh, I am here, in Kovno!" And maybe after a while this official would call from Kovno: "Oh, where are you, `nektas?' " And "nektas" would be already answering from Moscow: "Oh,-- in Kovno!" After this invitation to a game "nektas" was issued a visa. "Nektas" became "nekto" (someone) again, the letters "as" have left him as soon as he boarded a steamer which went from Konigsberg to Sczeczin and at the same time a metamorphosis occurred: Kant changed from a Lithuanian to a German, "Chopinas" probably became Chopin at that moment. Yes, in Germany things are put back in the proper places; and Chaikovsky who lived in Germany, Dostoevsky who was read by everyone, were not considered German but certainly Russian artists. "Nekto" recalled the steamer to Sczeczin with memories of pleasant young people who belonged to the so-called "green police," or the social democrat police of Prussia. (At that time the chief of Berlin police was an independent socialist) and the young, pleasant policemen on the steamer behaved with genuine independence falling under the spell of Bacchus and Venus. They consumed great amounts of "schnaps" and squeezed the young female employees of the ship who were delegated to the small state-rooms. The young democratic "green" policemen appeared behind "nekto" at the buffet and observed him eating sandwiches with great pleasure, they surrounded him and started to point at him, jokingly shouting: "Der Russische Fresser!", which means "and here we have a Russian glutton!" So "nekto" suddenly became a glutton in Germany, and was quite surprised that a lunch of a policeman consisted of one half of a meager sandwich, so that two whole sandwiches were a luxury. This had suddenly turned the Russian into a glutton and his behavior--into worship of food. Something else had surprised him: the personnel attached to the state rooms, the fashionable, flirtatious chambermaids had an arrangement with the young policemen and locked themselves up with them for extended periods of time in their state-rooms. "Nekto," as many did, had the imprudence to reserve a state-room for the whole night: and--only nothing more! Imagine his amazement when in the evening the door opened and a young woman appeared very concerned by the circumstance that "nekto" had reserved a room and did not need anything else. After the young woman discovered that "nekto" was happy with his solitude, she gave him a surprised look as if she were saying: "You are an odd fellow, aren't you? If this is the case, why would you need a room? You don't need it if you want to use it alone!" So the image of Berlin was created for "nekto" based on the image of a carefree "green" policeman, satisfied with one half of a sandwich, and the image of a pink young woman conducting "police service" in the rooms. These first impressions of Germany became the introduction to a two-year life in Berlin.
-- Andrei Bely. In the Kingdom of Shadows. Tr. by Catherine Spitzer. Tenafly, NJ: Hermitage Publishers, 2001. P. 7-21.