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[End Page 10]
Yuri Kuryagin and I have been reminiscing about old times in Berlin, where we worked together on the Observer, a Russian-language newspaper. We’ve shaken our heads over the wild inflation, the cabarets, the inexplicable craze for the six-day bicycle races, the always stormy politics, we’ve had a few laughs. Now he looks at his watch, and his dark face goes grave. Yuri’s here in Paris, passing through on his way to America. More and more people seem to be doing that these days. Like the rest of us who left Russia after the revolution, he once believed he’d be making a return journey eastward, and now he’s going west instead. In a few minutes he’ll be on his way to the train; in little more than a week he’ll be across the ocean. Partings like this are all too common for us Russian exiles. [End Page 11]
“Alexei,” he says after a while, “you should think about getting out.”
“Of Paris?” I ask.
“Of this continent,” he says. Then he’s quiet. He doesn’t have to say any more. Despite the diligent efforts to tidy up the streets, there are still reminders that only a few weeks ago they were filled with rioters, and there’d almost been a coup. The relief people feel now that it’s over can’t quiet the continuing anxiety about Hitler, the sense that, incredibly, another war might be looming. I suppose both of us are thinking about that in the moments before Yuri gets up to leave. “We had some great times in Berlin,” he says. I nod. Then a musing smile crosses his face. “Do you remember Nikitin?” he asks. “Of course,” I say, hoping he’s going to stay a while longer. But Yuri just puts out his hand and mumbles a quick good-bye. Soon he’s around the corner and out of sight. The café is virtually empty now, and tomorrow the continent will hold one fewer of our wandering tribe. It’s hard not to feel a little down; at the same time, it’s hard not to keep thinking about old times in Berlin.
So Yuri too remembers Nikitin. When I say the name aloud, I’m able to recover for a few moments a lost part of my life, I almost hear a snatch of that music, but it’s too elusive to grasp. How I wish I could hear it again. Sometimes it seems as if all we have in this life of exile is memories.
For the Russian community of Berlin in the late summer and fall of 1927, Nikitin’s name was on many people’s lips. “Have you heard him?’ they’d ask each other. “Have you listened to his songs?” At first, only a few recognized the name, since, upon his arrival from somewhere in the east, he played only in small, dingy clubs like the Steppes and the Three Crows. I knew those places: they were dark, smoke-filled caves where bored waiters passed among tables illuminated by flickering votive lights, each table an island where the shipwrecked inhabitants, almost exclusively male, huddled over glasses of cheap vodka and talked at each other, oblivious to the presence of their listeners, in fact, oblivious to everything but the sound of their own voices telling their stories of broken hearts and lost opportunities.
In these places nobody would lift a head to hear the club’s manager mumble an introduction: “. . . proud to present . . . mumble, mumble . . . Nikitin.” A few of the curious might take a sidelong glance toward the front of the room, but if they noticed the short, dumpy man in black standing there with a guitar, it would be only for a moment. They might [End Page 12] give him a brief look as he muttered a few words to the departing manager, but he was hardly the type to command your attention, and soon the islanders would have returned to their tales of shipwreck.
I wasn’t there, but I can see it. Nikitin is...