i was never good at telling intelligent people from mere self-confident fools, the know-it-alls, because I didn’t and couldn’t know, growing up, that, of course, those who claim to possess the whole truth usually know little or nothing. Growing up in Leningrad, the city named after a domestic god of this century, I hadn’t always been taught timidity, but I couldn’t help thinking that power deserves at least some respect.
Power, of course, was what the heavy-jawed, self-confident, laconic local officials in ill-fitting suits had in abundance: they could destroy me and everyone around me, but they could also protect me. Of course, they were supposed to be right all the time.
I knew they were thought of as fools. I also knew they were clever.
They were pawns, pitifully despicable and disposable, and yet they were strong and fearsome.
They didn’t know sophisticated words. [End Page 86]
They were bad listeners.
They spoke with the finality of omniscient illiterates.
They had sleepy eyes, half hidden behind short eyelashes and always ready to fix their cold and arrogant stare upon you unexpectedly.
Sometimes they would wink at you.
They were tiny cogs in a huge, unstoppable, menacingly rumbling machine.
They were weasels.
I used to think about them all the time. They were everywhere. I saw them on TV in black and white and, a little later, as a petty petitioner, in their oak-paneled offices, under the ubiquitous portrait of a squinting Lenin. Businesslike, they looked like parodies of themselves.
“It’s you again!” they would say, bored. I felt angry and ashamed. My thoughts about them were unclear. They were pawns; they were my enemies; so what?
I had to keep reminding myself constantly that I hated them and didn’t want to live in the same country with them.
They kept telling me I couldn’t leave.
“I don’t want to live in the same country with you!” I felt like shouting out proudly and meaninglessly. Of course, not once did I cross the border separating reasonable smugness from recklessness. I was no fool.
Besides, I knew what they would say, smiling, in response: “Commit suicide, Comrade Litovtsev, because you are not going anywhere!”
What I didn’t know then was that if they had told me, “You may go. Who are we to be the judges of your life?”—I probably would have stayed.
“You can’t and won’t go,” they persisted. Then, out of sheer frustration, I would say something witty and sardonic: “Do you know that you, too, are going to die one day?”
They would simply stare at me, coldly, coyly, condescendingly.
And then, one day, they told me I was free to go. “Really? You mean it?” They nodded gravely.
They probably forgot about me forever as soon as I left.
They were easy to despise and nice to hate, but they must have made me helpless, too: soon after I had left, I began missing the uncomplicated comfort of their belief that life can and should be beaten into submission; that death is avoidable, unlike the boss’s love and wrath; and that he who is too clever—or ever in doubt—is stupid.
I thought about them as the plane took off with a roar. I was wondering about the people I was going to face, timidly and hopefully, upon getting off the plane. I knew that they—foreigners, Americans—were bound to be different. How would I describe them? Americans were friendly and uncertain. [End Page 87] They smiled a lot. They were evasive. They had no right or reason to tell me that nothing in my life was any of my business. They seemed quite willing to leave me alone.
They were confusing.
I began to yearn to go back.
But I knew, of course, that I couldn’t go back, because I had already left.
I settled down in Boston. This, I was told, was the most European of all American cities.
Soon I began to feel sleepy all the time and to fall asleep whenever I didn’t have...