I met Sasha in 1971 at Moscow University, where I was on an exchange post-doctoral fellowship. He was a graduate student critical of Communism, and people like him kept exchange students sane.
Having a serious conversation with most of the Russians educated under the decades of Communism was impossible. They thought differently about just about anything, and talking with them was like talking into a void, like solitary confinement or being marooned.
I experienced an almost physical craving to share my ideas about life, love, happiness, and, of course, private property, and I felt I was losing my mind. But Sasha thought like me. I gave him old American magazines and free books from the American Embassy. He reciprocated by having me over for drinks. I was hoping for substantial conversations; instead, I got hangovers as he kept urging me on with "bottoms up."
Eventually, I concluded that after each drinking bout, Sasha was interrogated by the KGB, and each time he could truthfully say that all he remembered were trite conversations between drunks. It ruined his health — he was a diabetic — but it saved me.
The day after one of those nights when we drank way too much, I was to visit the grave of Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest authors ever, the writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I should have postponed my visit, but I was still so sick that I lacked the mental flexibility to change plans. Somehow, I got to the bus, then to Tula, then to Tolstoy's old estate, Yasnaya Polyana.
I arrived at closing time. A stern woman at the entrance told me I was an idiot. I could only agree … and explained that I was still so hungover I just could not change my plans. The woman stared at me and called the director. The director came, opened the museum, and gave me a two-hour private tour.
Throughout the tour, I kept thinking that if I hadn't been so drunk, I would remember what she told me, but then again, if I hadn't been so drunk, I never would have gotten this private tour. All I remember is the end, when we came to the valley where Tolstoy had wished to be buried. She told me his eldest brother Nikolai had told him about a little green stick buried there. On it was written how the world could live in love and universal happiness, which would happen when someone found it.
When I tell people I studied Russian, some ask me how I could stand it: Ivan the Terrible? The Gulag? Then I tell them about Sasha, about the staff of the Tolstoy Museum, about the little green stick, and about the poet Aleksandr Blok, who, after writing down a laundry list of bad Russian behavior, told his countrymen: "I still like you best of all."
Bert Beynen writes from West Philadelphia.