The Kremlin

March 8, 2010

On the news, when an important event has occurred, the Russian anchorman is very likely to say ‘The Kremlin says [insert here the official opinion of the Russian government].’ I grew up with this phrase, emanated from a cheap soviet television at 5pm exactly, each weekday and I never understood it wasn’t literal. Until I was seven years old, I imagined the old, big fortress speaking for itself, the red walls rumbling in a deep, warm voice and a random passerby being comforted rather than shocked by this age-old voice resonating voice originating from the red walls.

In daydreams in long maths classes I imagined a quiet walk along the Muscovite river, along the red brick walls which told me their opinion on the subjects the anchorman had discussed the night before. I would discuss my opinion on these important events in the news, as well as the things that seemed important to a seven-year-old: that beautiful lady who helped people and wore that dazzling jewellery, who my parents didn’t like, but who I thought was a princess from the books I read.

Twice a year, when we went as a reward for good behaviour, to visit our grandfather Lenin in his mummified state, I would stand as close as possible to the walls in Red Square, not caring about the worthless anecdotes of Lenin’s life our teacher was telling us, just hoping to hear a whisper of the Kremlin’s thoughts.

I failed almost all of my tests. So when I was eight and my illusion was freshly shattered; there was no deep comforting voice of the Kremlin, and those conversations would have to remain simply daydreams, my maths teacher requested a meeting with me. My parents had shattered my very last illusion of childhood with a brusk laugh and a patronizing pat on the head, and now they would look at the note I was sure to receive from my maths teacher and shake their head again, at this naïve daughter.

I remember him as an old man, but when I examined the facts I realised he was not much older than my parents, but to a child of my age that seemed years too old to sympathize with a child like me. He asked me what I would do about my failing grades; I told him I didn’t know. He shrugged. I was a quiet child who he couldn’t really relate to, so he asked me a question: What do you want to do when you’re older? Few people my age know the answer to that, so, in the aftermath, I wonder whether he was expecting a blank expression on which he could build a lecture about the importance of mathematics for every job.

I want to work in the Kremlin. My answer was simple, yet prompt. It caught him completely off guard.

The Kremlin? He asked, surprised and an edge of incredulity to his voice. You mean, you want to work in the government?

I shook my head. He waited for me to elaborate. When I didn’t, he gestured.

What do you mean, no? He asked, starting to become impatient.

I don’t care how, but I must work in the Kremlin; if that means working in the army, the government or the church, I’ll manage.

He laughed. Not necessarily at me, I could feel that, and so I sat there while he laughed, a real belly laugh at which I couldn’t help but smile. He didn’t send a letter home to my parents telling them about my failing marks, that day or ever. He and I formed a mutual bond of some sort. All he told me that day was that if I was really that determined to work in the Kremlin he wanted my maths grades to get better. They never did.

I had no idea about the collapsing Soviet Regime around me, it’s rotten red bricked ideology collapsing into clouds of dust before my very eyes, even though I watched the news every night.

My parents, a policeman and a nurse, both who doggedly loved the regime while it was in power and hated it when it fell out of power. They used to love Lenin and everything his name encompassed. They didn’t want to or needed to doubt any of the anti-capitalists propaganda and I, an only child, was brought up doing the same.

Because my mother’s job as a nurse meant her hours were irregular my parents thought, in their simple way, that some continuity should be introduced into my life. So, every night at 5pm, whether or not my parents were there, I was sat in front of the television to watch the news. It became a tradition no act of nature or collapse of any government could stop. We were lucky: neither my parents lost their jobs, though the threat was there, and so my life went on serenely until the day of our biannual visit to Lenin.

The day came after much anticipation on my part; my mother packed me off to school with an extra coat so that I would not get cold in the three hours we generally had to wait in line. But in school, no teacher mentioned the trip, no one lined us up; we were not walked in pairs to Red Square to wait in line. In short, nothing happened. Instead I received a maths test back in which I had scarped a pass. My friend, Masha, shared her chocolate bar with me. It snowed. Three things that would have usually made my day wonderful couldn’t erase my disappointment at my missed trip: not at missing a chance to see Lenin, for I couldn’t care less about the dead body of an old man, but about missing the hours I could stand by the Kremlin, imagining the voice of the country booming over the red square.

That day was the first day I disobeyed my parents: I was twelve.

After school I was always to go straight home, where I would ask my parents for permission to visit a friend’s house, and only once they had granted it, would I be allowed to travel through St Petersburg on my own. Never had I visited anything in St Petersburg without the permission of my parents. Until then.

I took a bus to the Red Square and turned away from the KGB building, which instinctively frightened me. I didn’t spare the elaborate domes of St. Basil’s a second glance. All I cared about were the red brick walls, which stood, unchanging, since, it seemed to me, the beginning of time. Unlike everything else in the world, these walls hadn’t and didn’t change. They didn’t suddenly stop visiting Lenin, they didn’t worry about losing their jobs and they didn’t suddenly pass maths tests. They remained a constant anchor to reality.

I stayed, curled up on the edge of the Red Square, face pressed against the ancient red brick walls, murmuring to them quietly, until three in the morning. Soft snow flakes danced around me and my breath was visible in the air. My hands soon lost all feeling, but I no longer needed my sense, I was safe, here, by the protectors of Russia.

My black coat made me look more like a permanent shadow than a small, under-developed girl, so no one disturbed me, except for the police when they found me.

By the time they found me, however, I already had severe hypothermia. I had to remain in hospital for almost three weeks. The first thing I said when I woke up was “they replied.” According to the medical staff I repeated that phrase in my sleep several times, though they put it down to my medication, which they claimed could induce wild dreams.

Now I work as a cleaner in the Kremlin, visiting it when no one else is there, cleaning different parts of the fortress and walking along the walls. The other cleaners may call me mad and avoid me, but I know I am sane: the Kremlin agrees with me.

The author's comments:
I wrote this after my stay in Russia in the style of Soviet short story writer Sergei Dovlatov and his story 'The Colonel Says I Love You', which is a great reflection on Soviet Russia in the early nineties and which I read before going to Russia.

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